Posted by: alexhickey | December 8, 2014

The Christmas Tree ©

snow covered evergreens with a snow covered mountain in the background

A Forest Full of Christmas Trees, St. Jacques

“Oh, and cut one for your grandmother too.”

That was usually the last remark from my mother as I traipsed out the door on the first day of Christmas Holidays. Off I would go, up over the hill behind our house to seek out the perfect tree that would become the centre of attention in our living room for the full twelve days of the season.

For some strange reason it invariably turned out that the first tree was the best one though it would take a couple of hours wandering across the hillside to realize it. Depending on the amount of snow on the ground those two hours were either pleasurable or hard work getting around. The experience intoxicated me with the spirit of what it meant to cut a Christmas tree. The sharp echo of every broken twig carried through Billy Cluett’s valley and seemed to bounce back once it reached Winterhouse Hill. The smells of resins seeping from evergreens and the decay of leaves combined with the clean crisp air spoke of a forest going to sleep. And here I was, choosing a tree to mark both hibernation and birth; a shutting down and a new beginning; taking a tree home to be transformed from the ordinary to the treasured.

A December without snow meant bringing home the tree, storing it in the shed until it was brought into the house for decorating. During those years with snow it meant making even more of a judgement for every tree was already decorated with cream puff snow balls and glistening icicles. Once home the ice and snow had to be melted before bringing it into the house on Christmas Eve. The timing of the entry of the tree was never negotiable and there were Christmas Eves when the tree dripped tears of joy between the decorations.

black and white photo of a decorated evergreen tree in a classroom

Christmas Tree, St. Michael’s School, St. Jacques

Of course this wasn’t the first Christmas tree of the season. In fact it was the second, for both Sacred Heart and St. Michael’s one-room schools boasted a tree precariously perched on a corner table or desk at the front of the room, usually to the left of the teacher’s desk for some inexplicable reason. Decorated with the imaginative creations of young children and an occasional old bell or bauble brought from someone’s home in the distant past, the tree captured our collective imagination days before school closed for Christmas. I don’t recall who cut the school trees; however, looking back at their pathetic, misshapen forms, I’ve concluded that the person didn’t spend two hours seeking them out. It also tells me my theory of the first being the best doesn’t work for all Christmas tree sleuths.

The classroom tree would never have made it in a competition for best shaped Christmas tree on any of today’s reality TV shows. Nor would it inspire a Victorian Christmas card. Yet, we thought it magical! That frequently barrel-shaped collection of uneven branches decked out with its motley collection of decorations with a bruised and tilting star atop inspired us all and invoked varying Christmas morning dreams among us. Surprisingly, its presence didn’t raise questions of Santa Claus nor did it diminish the expectations of our own Christmas tree at home. It simply added fuel to burning expectations and heightened the anticipation of time out of school. Some years it would be still standing when school reopened in January, most of its boughs bare and branches drooping from a lack of water; stripped of its majesty and magic, a mere reminder of the hopes, dreams and greed it embodied just a few weeks earlier.

The decoration of our tree at home rested with our mother for years; that is, until the older children had crossed over to the adult view of Christmas and could be trusted to keep the mystique alive for the younger siblings. That’s when the primary responsibility was passed on and the tree became a more communal responsibility.

Throughout the twelve days of Christmas I saw the trees of all my friends and those of my parent’s friends. Upon visiting a house for the first time the invitation was offered to come and see the tree. That meant, at the very least, standing just inside the living room door and offering an obligatory compliment regardless of whether the tree fitted into the good, bad, or ugly category. At its worst you were invited to stand beside the tree while someone told the story behind each gaudy but special ornament. As the season wore on, if you encountered someone whose house you hadn’t visited, the observation would be made that, “you haven’t been over to see our tree yet!”

Prior to the advent of electricity in St. Jacques in the mid-sixties, lights were not a decorating phenomenon. Whereas today lights are the common element of most decorations, back then the common element was silver tinsel! How it was applied varied from house to house. My grandmother used it sparingly, my aunt draped her tree as if dressing it for cold weather with waves of silver cascading down its branches hiding most of the other decorations. Neighbours used it to disguise imperfections, to help give shape to shapeless saplings. When the tree came down every effort was made to rescue as much tinsel as possible prior to discarding the tree to the woodpile. However, by the following year the saved tinsel had worked itself into an entangled mass defying anyone to extradite anything but a few shortened strands. After several years usage the tinsel lost it sparkling reflective qualities as it got bent and twisted, adding little to the tree but texture and something for the cat to make swipes at each time she walked by. And, of course, something to stick to your wool socks and travel with you until someone noticed your unwittingly decorated feet.

I still cut a “real” Christmas Tree. One of the enduring rituals when I first arrive in St. Jacques for Christmas each year is to scout out several choices. If there is no impending snow storm the pressure isn’t significant in waiting for my daughter to arrive to accompany me on those excursions; however, there have been occasions when she arrived late in the afternoon with snow on her heels. I recall once when we arrived back at the house barely before dark, two trees in tow and snow blanketing the ground dense enough to cover our footprints within minutes. Whatever the weather and whatever the shape of the tree, once decorated it took on a character and glow which endeared itself to all of us immediately.

The smell of a freshly cut fir tree standing in the living room defines Christmas for me more intensely than any other sensory quality. It takes me back to those hours of wandering through the forest behind my father’s house, pausing to assess and admire as I went about my crusade to find the perfect tree. It reminds me of those classroom days when the heat from the stove circulated the smell of the drying boughs throughout the room. Most of all, it reminds me of the simplicity of Christmas then when one could embody all that Christmas meant in a single tree cut just outside the fence of one’s backyard.

If you are wondering if I cut a second one for my grandmother, the answer is yes. I always cut two. Grandmother received the tree my mother rejected!

Merry Christmas!


Below is a list of links related to this topic which you might enjoy:

Christmas Tree
Chronological History of the Christmas Tree
The First Christmas Tree
A Newfoundland Christmas
A tale of Christmas in Old Newfoundland
Christmas Trees in Canada … By the Numbers
Not Your Average Christmas Trees
Did Labrador Have the First Christmas Tree In North America?
Christmas Past in Newfoundland
Old Christmas Day, January 6th also Known as Twelfth Night
Christmas Cards Arrive in Newfoundland
The Christmas Spirit from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories published, by Maple Leaf Mills Limited, in 1961 Newfoundland Christmas Customs
A Newfoundland Christmas by DC Rainmaker
Christmas Memories of Life in Grand Falls Newfoundland

The Sailor and the Christmas Trees: A True Story
An Orange from Portugal: Christmas Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland
Books to Warm Up to Christmas

Simani – Oh Christmas Tree
Oceans Away – Christmas in My Hometown
The Once – I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day


  1. Great memories to treasure for certain

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