Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 28, 2007

The enduring gift of the Christmas Tree

Many of husband Art's holiday memories revolve around his family cutting and selling Christmas trees in his native Wisconsin. His Grandfather Herrmann sold them from an empty lot next to his home - a family venture begun during the Depression when money was scarce. When his grandpa got up in years, the whole family pitched in to help.

The last sales were normally made in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, so at about 6 p.m., they turned out the lights. Then Art and his grandmother sat at the kitchen table where they could watch the tree yard. Over the next three or four hours, every so often a car would drive up very slowly with the lights out. Someone would get out, quickly grab a tree, stuff it in the trunk or on top of the car and then quickly drive away.

And Art and his grandmother would laugh. The next day, they'd just have to haul all those unsold trees to the dump, so as far as the family was concerned, they'd have been happy if all of them had been stolen.

Bob, another of Art's Herrmann relatives, remembered a similar experience that took place one cold and windy night at his family's Christmas tree yard. After they had turned out the lights, they heard a disturbance among the trees. Bob said they turned on the lights and hurried out to catch an obviously inebriated man attempting to load a tree into his car trunk. Becoming flustered upon being confronted, he pulled out his wallet, claiming he had meant to pay all the time. But when he opened his wallet to give Bob's mother a $5 bill, the wind caught the remaining bills and blew them away. The poor man scrambled around in the snow in an attempt to corral them, but failed to retrieve a single one.

Bob also recalled when a family arrived at the lot in a 1936-37 sedan.

"After they had found their dream tree," Bob said, "I carried it out to the car and offered to tie it on for them. The father adamantly refused my help so all I could do was stand by and attempt to suppress my laughter. The first thing he did was to order the entire family into the car, then he opened the trunk and pulled out what was at least a 50-foot coil of rope."

Bob said he offered some twine, but to no avail.

The man "proceeded to tie the tree on the driver's side fender with the top reaching well past the driver's door," Bob said. "Then he used the rest of the coil of rope to tie the tree to the car, passing the rope under and around the car until it was all used up. None of the doors could be opened so he had his wife roll down her window and he crawled in over the top of her into the driver's seat so he wouldn't damage the tree on his way in. I don't know how he could see to drive, but away he went!"

Art's friend Bill recalled the days when his father would locate a five- to six-foot scrub pine tree near their Missouri home and cut it in early in December.

"Dad placed the tree in the stand which had a reservoir that was filled with sugar water," Bill said. "This was to sustain the life of the tree through the holiday season. The tree was placed in the living room and he and Mom would decorate it with lights, strung popcorn or cranberries. As the temperature outside got colder and colder, Dad turned up the heat on the gas space heater in the room. He was up in age and the cold bothered him. I remember, at times, that it was hard to breathe and we would complain about the heat, but nothing changed. By Christmas Day, all of the needles on the scrub pine had fallen off, leaving only the tree limbs and decorations. To say the least, it was a funny sight, but it didn't dampen the spirit of opening gifts and enjoying great family fellowship on that special day of the year. This happened year after year, so it became a standing joke. Dad took a great ribbing, but always smiled in response. Memories like these will live forever because our sons were there and I feel certain the story will be passed down to generations that follow . . . "

Art's Uncle Art - one of two uncles for whom he is named - carried on selling and even raised trees after his dad died. He frequently "roped" family members into helping. Sons, daughters and grandchildren sheared the trees in summer, cut and hauled them to the lot before Christmas, and helped sell them, day and night.

Although Uncle Art's insistence on involving the whole family caused some resentment, every Christmas since his death in 2001, his kids and former wife have put a live tree from his land on his grave and decorated it with hand-made ornaments.

They tried battery-operated lights, but they went out too quickly. This year, they are trying solar-powered strings. They don't have a lot of hope for those either, but they'll keep trying. Uncle Art has had the only "lit" Christmas tree in the cemetery.

While we often think of the Christmas tree as the place we receive our gifts, in some families, the tree itself supplied a more enduring gift than any that were placed beneath it.

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