"O Tannenbaum" illustration by Jim Meehan

[Ed. Note: In Case you Missed It--an encore presentation: It’s that time of year when live Christmas trees are seemingly available for sale on every corner. Their fresh pine scent beckons families eager to hunt for the family’s perfect tree. Like most families, we have memories—good and not-so-good—about the “hunt,” the decorating, the undecorating, and stepping on pine needles hidden in the carpet in June. Last season, author Craig Bennet submitted his favorite Christmas (Tree) Story, and we’re delighted to share it again and welcome you to share your story with us!  [leslemisko@aol.com or janeEstahl@comcast.net ]

by Craig H. Bennett

From about the time I was in my early teens, my dad and I had been in the habit of cutting down our own live Christmas tree. The family abode was one side of a big old duplex with ten-foot ceilings and a huge living room. A room of that size would hold a lot of Christmas tree, so that’s what we got. Scotch pine was Dad’s breed of choice; and he and I would scour the area tree farms, bow saw in hand, until we found the biggest, fullest, shapeliest tree to be had.

By the time I was about half-way through college, however, we came to realize that we had pretty well picked over what was available at the usual places; and what was left didn’t quite pass muster. After spending a good bit of the week-end before Christmas in an unsuccessful quest for that year’s tree, we finally wound up at an out-of-the-way farm where Dad had heard there was a small patch of evergreens that the farmer was looking to sell for Christmas trees.

It was late in the afternoon and already growing dark. The patch of trees was somewhere out in the back forty, and it took us a while to locate it. But after we looked over most of the entire crop, we discovered a tall, full, well-shaped Scotch pine that appeared, in the gathering darkness, to be one of the nicest trees we’d come upon in the last few years. Dad sawed it free a few inches above the ground while I held it steady to keep it from tipping over prematurely, and we had our tree.

On our trek to the stand of trees we had noticed a narrow road over near the edge of a nearby field. It looked as if it would be much easier to bring the car down that road to the edge of the field and load the tree onto it there than to drag it all the way back to the car the way we had come. I stayed with the tree while Dad went for the car, and soon I saw the headlights come slowly down the road, stop by the edge of the field, and go out.

By the time Dad had made his way to where I was waiting with the tree, it was all but completely dark. We dragged the tree back to the car, secured it on top of the roof, and drove back home. Once parked in front of the house, we untied the tree in the dim glow of the street lights and lifted it down onto the sidewalk.

And that’s when we noticed it. The tree didn’t smell quite like a pine tree. And in the semi-darkness in front of the house, it looked like there was a lot of mud clinging to one side of it. Dad reached into the car and produced a flashlight from the glove compartment. When he shined it onto the muddy side of the tree, we noticed that the mud appeared to be inexplicably wet (there’d been no rain recently) and had tiny bits of dried grass or hay mixed in with it. And when we leaned over to look more closely, that strange, rather unpleasant odor became a lot stronger.

Dad and I looked at each other, hardly daring to acknowledge what we finally realized was true. Then he looked back at the tree, incredulous. “Damn,” he muttered to no one in particular. “We just dragged this tree through a field full of fresh manure.”

Then, after a moment of thought, he finally looked directly at me. “Don’t say anything to your mother,” he said, his voice almost a whisper. “We’ll take this tree around back and tie it to the wash post. Tomorrow, while your mother’s at work, I want you to get out the hose and wash that sucker down till it shines. We’ll see what it looks like then.”

I was on Christmas break from college, and my mother worked as the cashier in a little neighborhood grocery store around the corner from where we lived. As soon as she left the house the next morning, I dragged the ancient rubber garden hose out of the basement, hooked it up, and probably lowered the water level in the town reservoir by a few feet washing down that Christmas tree. Eventually I was to learn that some of the neighboring housewives and retirees who happened to glance out of the window while I was busily at work later complimented one or the other of my parents on what an extraordinarily clean family we were, even washing off our Christmas tree before bringing it inside. “Oh… sure,” Dad agreed. “Keeps it fresh till we get it in the house.”

And soon we did just that. It was a couple of days before Christmas, and Dad had taken a little vacation time before and after the holiday. My mother was at work, and the coast was clear for us to make a dry run with the tree to see if too much of the farm-field aroma still clung to it when we got it inside. Dad and I brought the tree around the side of the house and in through the front door, standing it up in its base in one corner of the living room while my sister opened up the boxes that held the trimmings. When the tree was in place, we all stood still for a moment or two and breathed deeply. As far as we could tell, the only unusual aroma was a faint scent of evergreen… so far.

Then Dad produced the coup de grace. Aerosol spray scents were just becoming popular and widely available, and he’d had the foresight to pick up a can of “pine forest” on his way home from work the day before. He bathed the tree in that aerosol scent until the can was just about empty. When he finished, he stood back and breathed deeply once again. Then, with a look of obvious satisfaction, he turned to my sister and me and declared, “If you kids don’t say anything, she’ll never know.”

When my mother got home from the store a few hours later, Dad, my sister, and I had the tree about half decorated. When she walked into the living room, her face brightened up, and the first words out of her mouth were, “Wow! Does that tree ever smell good!” The rest of us just looked at each other and mustered all our strength to keep from laughing out loud.

It wasn’t until the holidays were over and the tree had been taken down and disposed of that my mother learned the truth. When she did, she wasn’t sure at first whether she should be angry or amused. Her sense of humor won out, however, and we all had a good laugh over the incident.

It wasn’t many more years before both my parents and my wife and I switched over to artificial trees for the holidays. There were plenty of perfectly good reasons for doing so, and none of us ever regretted it. But every once in a while, when I’d get that nostalgic urge for a good old-fashioned, all-natural, cut-‘em-yourself Scotch pine like we had when I was a kid, I’d remember dragging that long-ago tree in the darkness across a field covered with fresh manure, standing out back of the house spraying it with the garden hose like it was a house on fire, and dreading that my kid sister would spill the beans to our mother before the tree was down and out of the house. And then I’d realize that nostalgia isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes, in fact, it just plain stinks.

-Craig H. Bennett, author of Nights on the Mountain and More Things in Heaven and Earth, available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and the Firefly bookstore in Kutztown, PA

More News from Boyertown
I'm interested
I disagree with this
This is unverified