I apologize for not being around the past couple of weeks. I have been busy with Christmas goodie baking and some personal matters. I shipped off a box of treats to the former Mrs. Translator on Monday for her to enjoy and share with Middle Son, Least Son, and their families. I also mailed out a box to Eldest Son and his mate since they are unable to come home this year.
Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
I have mentioned previously how much my mum loved Christmas. She loved wrapping the gifts, cooking the goodies and meals, and even buying the gifts. But most of all she loved to decorate the interior of the house. (The outside belonged to my dad to decorate.) A major part of decorating was the tree itself, but she did the whole downstairs as well.
We never bought a tree (except for one of those three foot aluminum ones popular in the early 1906s on which she would hang the Christmas cards). We always went out and got our own. Before I was old enough to go, my brother and dad would go get one, usually from the farm. Later, after he married and moved away and I got older, my dad and I would go.
Later on my friend and I would go, and later still the former Mrs. Translator and I would go. In our area the only candidate species was the Eastern red cedar, actually a juniper, Juniperus virginiana. Those can be very handsome trees and often have a very nice shape naturally. The scales on the leaves and stems of them are very sharp and penetrating, so you have to wear gloves to handle them whislt harvesting.
Just going to the farm to get one was not daring enough, and besides most of the pretty ones were gone by the time that I got involved getting trees even when I went with my father. We would just go and find one, regardless of where it was growing. This required stealth!
The way that worked the best was for two or more of us to drive to where pretty trees were growing and for the driver to drop off the cutter. Since stealth was important, the axe or bow saw was the tool of choice since they were quiet compared to a chain saw. The cutter would cut the tree and lay low with it until the driver returned. They the two of them would throw it into the back of the pickup, tie it down, and get away fast. Only once did a landowner nearly catch us, and he probably would not have minded anyway. Junipers are extremely common whence I come, and sometimes become a nuisance. We preferred ones that had lots of blue juniper berries on them. Some winters were harsh and pretty, green ones were hard to find, but if we had patience we could always find a good one.
Our house has ten foot ceilings downstairs, so we could go for really big trees. Fortunately, juniper trees are light for their height, so two people could easily handle a nine foot tree. Once we got it home we would take a saw and even the bottom of the trunk and make sure that it was at a right angle to the axis of the trunk. Then we would prop it against the house in a bucket of water.
Then we would get the tree stand that we used since around 1962 (my parents were still using it when I moved away) and put it together. Next we would take a nail or the drill and make a hold in the center of the base for the spike in the bottom of the tree stand. Even though that was a massive tree stand, with a nine foot tree we had to support it near the top with a wire or stout cord to keep it from tipping.
We would drag the tree into the living room (with my mum complaining about the debris on the carpet, but good naturedly), put the stand on it, and raise it. It was my job to get on the floor and adjust the screws in the stand to get it as vertical as possible. I still remember itching from doing that, since the branches were barely off the floor.
Once we got it erected and the upper support wire attached (and the stand filled with water) it was time to decorate it. This was a really big family event. We had a ritual of sorts. First came the lights. Ours were the old C7 1/2 ones, at half a watt per light. A string of fifty drew 25 watts, enough to get quite warm or even hot. We had lots of lights, usually five or six strings. Assuming six strings, at 25 watts per, that is 150 watts, half enough again as the brightest common single incandescent bulb. But since efficiency in light production rises as the single bulb power consumption does, those bulbs produced lots more heat than the rating would indicate.
Most of those bulbs were of the translucent variety, so that it was not possible to see the filament. Later on we started to get the transparent ones, all in gay colors. Both the transparent and (translucent) ones were clear (white), orange (orange), red (red), green (green), and blue (blue). We did not use twinkle lights until I was older, and I still prefer a mix of constant ones and twinkle ones. We also had some of the old bubble lights (a clear tube containing a volatile organic material dyed in Christmas colors) that you had to clip to a tree branch to make sure that it was upright or it would not bubble.
After the lights, on went the roping (some call it tinsel). Once again, it was ancient, my parents having bought it before I was born. It was heavy aluminum foil decorative balls strung on a heavy cotton twine. I got really good with it and would loop in over and under itself. Sometimes the old cotton twine would break, but we just tied it back together and tried to hide the seams on the back of the tree. There was enough to decorate a huge one, so we never ran out of it.
After the roping came the ornaments. We had boxes and boxes of them, and I had my favorites. The old, clear, hand painted ones that predated me were my favorites, and they were fragile. I took the utmost care with them and only, as I recall, broke one. Those were hung with care by heavy hooks (the ones that you get now are lightweight) that really gripped the tree. They were heavily galvanized, and lasted for decades. After that came the balls, fragile but nondescript glass ones, that were hung to accentuate the lights.
By this time the tree was getting hot, and I mean from the heat from the lights. That is why we always cut a new slice from the tree just before we put it in the stand. Our trees would often require over a gallon of water per day to keep them green and not to get dry, and it was my job for years to make sure that there was plenty of water in the reservoir.
All of this hanging and watering took its toll! Juniper trees, and I mentioned earlier, have really sharp and penetrating leaf scales, and I have sort of an allergic reaction to them. I would always get all red and whealpy on my hands from the lights, roping, and ornaments, and my arms would get that way from watering the tree. But such is the price of a proper Christmas tree!
In later years, after my boys were born, my mum would buy a new ornament with each of their names on it and the date to hang. Either the former Mrs. Translator (with whom I spoke today to tell her that her box of Christmas goodies are on their way for her and the boys) or I would hang them, and we often took turns. When the boys were old enough, they hung their own ones whilst we watched. But I am getting ahead of myself.
After all of the hanging things went on the tree, there were the icicles. I LOVE icicles on a Christmas tree, and the ones (aluminized Mylar plastic) were not anything like the old ones. The old ones were made of pure lead, rolled into a foil, embossed with a crinkle, and then cut into around 1/8" strips that were around 18 inches long. Those were ICICLES! They were easy to separate, heavy enough to hand well, and shiny. They were not reusable because they were tender, so we never bothered to try to recover them, but just vacuumed up what fell when the tree came down and left the rest on the tree. The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned them many decades ago, but I suspect that some of the folks reading this remember them. I still very much dislike the aluminized plastic ones. They are too light, do not cling, and just look gaudy. But that is just me.
Every now and then my mum would buy a can of the spray "snow" to put on the trees, but it was disgusting. We used it only a couple of times, and decided that it was better for frosting windows than spraying on the tree.
Once the tree was decorated (and it was a huge family effort), the blanket went down over the stand (with the opening handy for me to water it) and the gifts were arranged under it. I am recalling that the tree was ready around the second week in December and that the gifts kept accumulating until Christmas Day. Our family had a strict tradition that no gift could be opened until Christmas Day. Perhaps we shall talk about those other traditions next week, but this one is dedicated to the tree.
By the way, a Christmas tree is quite pagan, from our Germanic ancestors. If I am not occupied (please wish for me that I am!) I shall write a piece about that next week.
After all of the gifts were opened and the day enjoyed, it was time to take the tree down and out of the house. By that time it was quite dry and the leaf scales hurt horribly! After the first or second time, I always wore leather work gloves for that chore. We would take a cup and remove the water from the stand, remove the ornaments, then the roping, then the lights, and pack them. Then Dad and I would manhandle the tree out the front door, spilling lead icicles and lots of tree debris in our wake. Mother would vacuum them up as we did that. This was always done before New Year's Eve.
Once we got the tree outside, the ceremony for a long time was to burn it. I am not sure if that is from the pagan origins of the tree or if just for expediency, but burn it we did. Have you ever put a four week old, dried out juniper tree alit? It is AMAZING how fast they burn! From lighting the bottom bough with nothing more than a kitchen match to backing away, it takes only fewer than ten seconds for the tree to be completely involved! The flame is incredibly large and hot, and on a nine foot tree would often reach 25 feet or more, but just for a couple of minutes. That is long enough to burn down a house, so be careful with natural trees!
In later years we would take them to my friend's very large pond and wire rocks to them and sink them in deep water to provide habitat for catfish spawning. To be honest, Rex and I would burn them before sinking them because it was so, so cool to watch, and only the scale leaves were burnt for the most part, the limbs where the catfish hide being only lightly singed.
Well, there you have how we used to "do" the Christmas tree. By the way, many of the decorations, lights, and roping are in the possession of the former Mrs. Translator. Not all of them, but lots of them. I am happy that they remain in the family, and the boys know whence they came. I hope that they can hand some of them down to their children as time passes.
Please feel free to comment on how you used to decorate your tree (or, for our friends of other faiths, how you celebrated your holiday, because almost all religions have a winter solstice celebration) or otherwise make the house joyful. I always enjoy reading your recollections.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith