It’s December 23, 1995 and I say “It’s too late to get a tree.”

            “What do you mean it’s too late?” my husband replies. “Christmas is still two days away.”

            I groan. He doesn’t share the high standards about Christmas trees that I inherited from my childhood in Oregon. First of all, people in the 1940’s and 50’s didn’t buy Christmas trees. They walked into the woods, picked out a nice one, cut it down and carried it home. Or a friend or relative gave you one they had procured the same way. And they did this long before December 23.

            “We always put ours up two weeks before Christmas,” my Uncle Loren said as we sat around my grandparents’ tree on Christmas Eve. “Get them any earlier and they dry up on you. Get them any later and you can’t enjoy them as long.”

            My husband and I had long missed the Christmas deadline of my youth. “Come on” he says. “They’ll be cheaper now.” We get into the car and drive to the nearest tree lot.

            That’s another thing that bothers me. Oregonians of the mid-twentieth-century didn’t buy trees from vendors.

             “You can’t trust those trees on the lots that have been harvested way back in October. The needles will fall off long before Christmas,” Great Aunt Lura claimed.

            Getting a Christmas tree was an event, not a shopping trip. You trudged into the woods searching for the very best. “We always get a Douglas Fir,” Aunt Ruth said. “They’re the nicest.”

            “I like the Noble Fir better,” Uncle Eppie replied.

            “No. Give me a spruce, a blue spruce,” Uncle Robbie said. “That one we had last year was a real beauty.”

            There were lots of trees in Oregon; and in the pre-environmental days, nobody cared if you chopped down one or two. Sometimes “Stay Out” signs were posted on a fence post, making you walk farther to get around someone’s property lines. But you kept trudging until you spotted the right one.

            One year, my brother Tony and his best friend, Elmer, set off to find the perfect tree. Elmer returned with a broken shoulder.

            “How did this happen?” both sets of parents asked.

            “None of the trees looked good enough, so me and Elmer saw this real tall one and figured we’d climb up and cut off the top part for our tree. But Elmer fell.”

            It’s important to find a good-looking Christmas tree. My husband parks the car at a tree lot and we get out under a string of drooping lights strung between two poles. The scent of pine and fir fills the air. I close my eyes and I’m standing in an Oregon forest in a December drizzle. It’s cold and wet but it smells good.

            ‘Here’s one!” my husband calls out, his voice bringing me back to Southern California. I open my eyes and look in his direction. He stands beside a tree that looks like it lost half its needles before it crossed the state line.

            “Too scraggly,” I say.

            “Add more ornaments,” he replies as he trots toward another tree. “What about this one?”


            “We can put that side in the corner,” he suggests.

            “We’ve done that before,” I complain. “Can’t we have a perfect tree, just once?”

            He’s already in the next aisle. “Take a look at this one,” he calls.

            I walk toward him, my eyes surveying the tree. “It’s got a funny crook at the top. What kind of an ornament could hide that deformity?”

            “Snow,” he suggests. “I could get several cans of spray-on snow and . . . ”

            I don’t let him finish. “No way! That stuff doesn’t look real.” Immediately my mind is back in Oregon when flocked trees made their debut. Everyone sneered at them. Worse yet, someone came up with pink ones. What an aberration! Then came fake Christmas trees. True Oregonians always used the word fake for artificial trees. I looked around me. At least my husband and I were searching for a real tree. Maybe we’d find a nice one here someplace.

            “My grandpa always had perfect Christmas trees.”

            “What was that?” my husband asks from somewhere in the evergreen aisles.

            “Grandpa always had a perfect Christmas tree. He made them that way in his workshop.”

            My thoughts take me to Grandpa’s workshop in the back of his garage. It was a magical place where wood shavings curled away from his hand plane and piled ankle deep on the floor around his workbench. It was a quiet place, too, because Grandpa had no power tools or radio in his shop. He worked silently, his blue eyes squinting as he sighted along the edge of a board. One could sense his passion for fine wood. He didn’t grab lumber . . .  He caressed it. As he sawed and sanded, the fragrance of wood rose in the air like incense in a cathedral.

            It was in this place where he performed his yearly Christmas miracle.

            I don’t know where my grandparents got their Christmas trees, for I never heard of either of them tromping in the forests. No doubt a friend or friend of a friend who worked in the woods or had acreage in the country gave them a tree each year. No matter what kind of tree Grandpa received, he improved it.

            He eyed the tree from every angle. It might not be full enough on one side. No problem. He’d fill in the sparse areas with branches taken from the bottom of the tree. He accomplished this with a hand-operated drill which he patiently turned as he bored a hole of just the right size in just the right spot on the trunk of the tree. The limb to be grafted might need its end shaved a bit to fit the hole, but it always fit snugly. Grandpa’s trees never lost any of their rearranged limbs.

            He always sawed off several limbs from the bottom of the tree leaving plenty of trunk space for his hand-made tree stand constructed of two-by-fours that criss-crossed each other. It held the tree firmly in place. Grandpa’s trees never wobbled, leaned, or fell. A seaman from the age of thirteen, he knew how to “lash things down.” His Christmas trees could withstand the storm of a dozen grandchildren romping around them.

            On Christmas Eve, we admired his work. Aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws all gathered in the grandparents’ home on that evening to exchange gifts. The living room would be dark except for the glow from the fireplace and the shimmer of lights on the tree.

            As a child, I sat transfixed before the tree as conversation ebbed and flowed around me. Like someone detailing a surgery, Grandma described the alterations and adjustments that “Daddy,” as she always called him, had made to the Christmas tree. From his corner near the fireplace, Grandpa said nothing, but I’d glance his way and see the smile-wrinkles at the corners of his eyes lift when Grandma pronounced “it’s a perfect tree.”

            Then I’m back in the Southern California Christmas tree lot looking at a husband who is wandering among a rag-tag bunch of imperfect trees torn from the moist soil of an Oregon tree farm weeks earlier. I’m stalled in my search for the perfect tree. It doesn’t exist here.

            My husband, however, will settle for most anything at a cheap price that involves no fixing on his part. I wonder what Grandpa would do if he were standing in my shoes? Suddenly, I know what Grandpa would do. He’d do the best with what he got.

            I holler at my husband. “Let’s take that one. The one with the crook in its top.”

            “Really?” he asks. “You want that one?”

            I can sense his relief that I’ve finally made a decision.

            “Yeah, that one. With a little fixing it could turn out to be a perfect Christmas tree.”