by Shawn Hart
“I Think That I Shall Never See A Poem Lovely As A Tree”——Joyce Kilmer
The world — as Chestnut “Hill” will attest — is not flat. Nor does wealth trickle down, nor might make right, nor cats reincarnate, on average, eight times, even when “fixed.” And while age and experience may disprove many axioms and much of what we know as magic, there is always Christmas.
Christmas — December 25 for those who follow the Gregorian calendar — is always and ever about the pursuit of the perfect tree. I was born into it, like a bird’s egg in a forked branch.
My family’s maniacal Christmas tradition worked like this: My siblings and I (the oldest) would retire on Christmas Eve, climbing the stairs to our beds from an utterly unadorned, everyday living room. Overnight, the “miracle” of Christmas would transpire. Before dawn, a train platform would levitate into place, its tracks encircling a tiny village lit up and bustling beneath a fully decorated tree.
The smells of ozone and oil from the transformer would breathe an atmosphere tangy with evergreen resin into the happy valley, like the aroma of real life upstate somewhere. The penumbra of tree lights haloed the top of the steps where we crouched and counted packages before our parents wearily called us down to see “what Santa had brought.”
Abracadabra! Ho ho ho!
We soon grew too old, or our parents did, for these eight-hour transformative marvels to enchant. At age seven or so it was time for me to see how the sausage was made.
My dad’s pursuit of perfection would begin just after supper on Christmas Eve. We’d walk to a nearby tree lot when the night cold came down hard on the shivering attendant who’d already spent a long day hawking a dwindling forest of balsam firs. (This “11th hour” negotiating tactic, now maddeningly familiar to taxpayers, was a revelation to me.)
Dad would make a deal for a cheap (or free) tree, along with permission to gather from the ground as many branches as I could carry. At home, he’d drill holes in the trunk of the shabby, shapeless thing we’d dragged back to our yard, and he’d fill in the bare spots with the limbs I’d collected. Alacazam! The perfect tree…until my scavenged branches began to brown, spilling an avalanche of rusty needles onto the tracks and the village whenever the front door was opened or closed.
After leaving home, my search for evergreen trophies continued, interrupted only by my travels, including one hallucinogenic Christmas in San Francisco when I costumed one of those cheesy, tri-cone, floor-to-ceiling pole lamps in tin foil and colored light bulbs to masquerade as a tree. Bummer. Shamefully, I was once forced by finances to “liberate” a tree from a fenced lot with an old friend from Chestnut Hill who shall remain nameless. To his credit, he blustered quite a bit about the larceny but nevertheless opened the sunroof on his VW Beetle so I could shove almost all six feet of the tree into his car. More damning, I’d persuaded him to cruise by the lot several times slowly in the dark, so I could case the inventory before making my selection.
Later as a husband and father, my quest instinct grew stronger, albeit with little family cooperation until my youngest daughter was born. My wife, Kari, a pastor and trained professional when it comes to patience, stopped accompanying me when our older daughter, Katie, made manifest her inherited (from her mother) impatience with the process.
Apparently, visiting eight or nine tree lots over the course of a weekend was too much family fun for them; the only reason I’ll even mention the hours we’d spend traipsing through snow at tree farms in Bucks County and New Jersey to cut our own tree is to illustrate the investment I was willing to make at forging unforgettable holiday memories.
But then came Amanda, our youngest, whose name in Latin means “she must be loved.” Or as I translate it: “she who gets it.” After she’d found her first bird’s nest in a Christmas tree as a toddler, the ante on our excursions shot sky high. The perfect tree had to have a bird’s nest. Put simply, without a nest a tree could not be perfect. Axiomatic.
If she’d been born into the Weyerhaeuser family, I have no doubt she’d already be chairman of the forest products giant and protecting more birds than the Audubon Society and Sierra Club together. The girl loves the trek for the perfect tree. She’s restored my arboreal brio, and if it weren’t for the fact that she now lives in the Pacific Northwest, I’d take up the axe again and we’d hike into Fairmount Park, or drive to Maine if need be, and spend a week searching for a miniature version of Rockefeller Center’s heaven-spearing spike. We might even sneak into the northeast quadrant of the White House and take that old evergreen outta there. If you suspect an obsession at work here, you’re not far off.
For perspective, however, I recall an unrelenting storm two years ago that delayed Katie’s return home from school in Scotland. For a solid week, polar winds poured into Western Europe while Katie, her bags packed, clutched a useless airline ticket to Philadelphia in her empty Edinburgh dorm. Amanda was already here, having arrived from the west coast with plenty of time to help me find the perfect tree. We did, and then we waited…for days and days for Katie to help us decorate it. But she languished overseas, her loneliness evident in her eyes whenever we could raise her on Skype. On Christmas Eve, without her, we finally dressed our Fraser fir with treasures that have been in Kari’s family, my family and our family for generations.
At last, on December 26, 2010, Katie landed at Newark International in a blizzard that was dumping more than two inches of snow per hour on the runways. Hers was the last international flight allowed to land. It had taken me nearly three hours to drive up the turnpike to meet her —Amtrak had shut down service throughout the northeast corridor — and six and a half hours to drive home to Mt. Airy through 20 inches of snow, gridlock, exhaustion, frustration and at last gratitude.
We’d saved the angel for Katie, to place atop the tree.
Shawn Hart is a Mt. Airy resident and a former editor at the Local.