The perfect Christmas tree
By Jim Poling Sr.
There’s news this week that an electric eel named Wattson is being used to help light up a Christmas tree at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.
This would be wildly exciting news to my dad. He was a starry-eyed Christmas tree connoisseur, and if alive today our living room would have an aquarium filled with electric eels illuminating our Christmas tree.
Searching for and decorating the absolute perfect Christmas tree was an obsession in our house.
The annual Christmas tree project began two weeks before Dec. 25. Dad would start it off by honing the axe. Artificial trees barely existed back then and considering one, instead of a live trophy cut and dragged from the woods, would be sacrilegious.
And, there was no chainsaw. No saw of any kind. Only a hand axe could be used in the devout work of whacking down the perfect Christmas tree.
On an appointed morning, usually during a storm of the century, we would trek into the snowy woods to begin the hunt for the perfect tree.
After trudging for an hour through the deepest part of the woods we would end up back at the forest edge where we began.
“That’s the one!” my father would declare, eyeing a tall balsam that was the first tree we had passed when entering the woods an hour earlier. “It’s perfect.”
The perfect tree always was balsam and always a giant, 20 to 30 feet tall. Balsam held their needles much better than spruce, my father said, and the tallest trees had the best crowns.
The harvesting began with my father cutting away lower branches to make room to swing the axe into the tree’s smooth trunk. The thunking of the axe resounded through the forest as wood chips floated in the air like oversize pieces of confetti.
This was strenuous work and after a minute or two my father’s rimless glasses would fog, making it difficult for him to see the angle of the cut, which determined where the tree would fall.
My father told us precisely where the tree would fall but anyone betting on the accuracy of his precision was sure to lose their money. Or consciousness, if you could not get out of the way quickly.
We children witnessing the cutting were frozen with apprehension as the axe did its work. The first crack signalling that the tree was falling sent us scrambling through the snow, desperately trying to guess where the tree would land.
When the tree was down, and all bodies counted to ensure no one was pinned beneath it, the crown would be measured for living room height and the axe would be put to work again.
There was no enlightened environmental thinking back then. We were surrounded by tens of thousands of trees and no one thought twice about cutting a large healthy specimen and taking just its crown for Christmas.
After being dragged home the tree was anchored in a pail of hard-packed sand and set in a corner of the living room.
Strings of ancient lights that could never pass an electrical inspection were placed strategically on the branches. Then coloured balls were hung on branch tips where they would catch and reflect the red, blue, green and yellow lights.
Then came that final, and most important, decorating step – adding the tinsel.
Tinsel was the real deal back then, long strips of tin or lead foil that were malleable and could be bent around a branch to stay firmly in place. Not like today’s flimsy silvery strips that fly off at a sneeze.
Tinseling the tree was an art performed only by father. He did, however, instruct us in the do’s and don’ts of tinsel hanging so we could participate as we got older. Sort of an apprenticeship in tinsel hanging.
When every branch was fully draped with tinsel all our family would gather around the tree, eyes wide with wonder. No one said a word as the glow from the tree’s colourful lights danced happily off the decorative balls, sparkling tinsel and our awe-filled faces.
No words were needed because no one needed to be told that we were viewing the perfect Christmas tree.