The time has arrived for colorful pumpkin and squash autumn decorations to be replaced by traditional Christmas greenery. The tree is the most important part of most holiday displays, and plenty of beautiful real trees are now on sale locally. A few varieties of pine, fir and spruce seem to be the most popular.
The history of the Christmas tree goes back to the symbolic use of evergreens in ancient Egypt and Rome, and the German tradition of candlelit Christmas trees. The tradition was probably first introduced to North America during the American Revolution by Hessian (German mercenary) soldiers hired by England.
Among the varieties of evergreens that are used nowadays, cedars are seldom seen. I was well into my grade school years before I realized that there was any kind of Christmas tree other than a cedar. Plenty of these trees grew (and still do) in the edges of the woods, in pastures, and along fence rows. They were free for the cutting, and no one even considered buying a tree.
We always had a cedar Christmas tree at home and didn’t have to go far to find it. Our woods started just beyond the yard fence in rural Martin County. One of the favorite activities of the season was cutting the tree. Cold cheeks and red noses didn’t matter as we bundled up and trudged out on a December day to find and saw down the nicest tree.
Our trees were small and were set in containers filled with rocks so they could be watered, because cedar dried out quickly in the same room with the heating stove. Keeping them from drying was considered important so that they did not become fire hazards.
Small ornaments and tinsel icicles that were carefully removed and saved year after year adorned the little trees. Sometimes strings of homegrown popcorn were added. The scent of cedar perfumed the whole house. It was the smell of Christmas.
At school, the older boys went into the wooded hills around town to cut a 6- to 8-foot cedar tree for each classroom. They hauled them to the school’s woodworking shop and nailed stands on them. We decorated the trees with colored paper chains that we pasted together, along with tinsel icicles and ornaments furnished by our teachers.
The cedar tree that was awesome for me was the one at church. It also was a product of the woods and pastures surrounding the small town of Huron. The difference was that it was huge. The local church men managed every year to find a tree that almost brushed the high church ceiling. I don’t recall any decorations besides lights and tinsel icicles, but year after year, the giant trees were a special part of the Christmas Eve children’s programs.
Even so, cedar trees had their disadvantages. The thin branches would hold only very lightweight ornaments, and a dry tree was prickly and difficult to dismantle after the holidays. Whatever their drawbacks, we enjoyed the trees as a special part of every childhood celebration in the 1940s and 50s.
As I became an adult, the first time I ever actually paid money for a Christmas tree was when I was in school in Indianapolis in the late 1950s. My roommate and I pooled our slender resources and bought a small tree for $5. We made decorations for it and thought it was beautiful. Of course it was not cedar, but it was much sturdier. In fact, it held up so well and was so pretty, that we decided to keep it a while to get the most from our investment.
January came and went, and still we were enjoying the tree. In February, we decorated the tree with hearts. In March, just as we began to plan our tree decor for Easter, the dorm authorities caught up with us and made us throw it out. At least we were not in as much hot water as in the previous year, when we were hiding a litter of kittens, but that’s another story.
In the years since, I have bought lots of trees. On many Christmases I cut my own at tree farms with the help of nephews, but the boys are grown up now and most of them live far away. For several years I have settled for the convenience of an artificial tree, but I still sometimes miss the fragrant scent of cedar.
This article originally appeared on The Times-Mail: The trees of Christmas