I enjoy an ecumenical household, so when Mary and I married a few months ago it was with anticipation of sharing two celebrations that would bring light into our home near year’s end. But, since it’s not a part of my tradition, I didn’t expect that work, school and appointment schedules would leave cutting a Christmas tree to me.
Our home is an 1847 Greek revival and no doubt has hosted many a holiday evergreen, but since this would be its first Christmas tree in many years, I decided to prepare by visiting the site of the first decorated Christmas tree at Noden-Reed Park in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Some sources say it’s the earliest in Connecticut, others in New England, and still others in the Untied States. Regardless, it’s where a primal Christmas tree of some kind was first observed.
The park is a long rectangle of rolling land with close-cropped grass punctuated by a few trees and surrounded by suburban backyards. At the far end is a wooded copse tangled with brush in front of which is a conical spruce maybe twenty feet tall. On either side of it is a clump of ornamental grasses. There’s a bench nearby. At the base of the tree is a granite marker commemorating the site of the alpha Christmas tree in 1777. Taking a seat on the slatted bench, I stared at the well trimmed green cone and thought about all the Christmas trees I’d seen over the years, from misshapen and humble Charlie Brown types in friends’ parlors to the glorious Norway spruce that towers in Rockefeller Center.
Frowning on holiday celebrations, Puritan Connecticut was a strange place for such a beginning, Christmas tree farmer Jean Crum Jones notes in a recent article on locally grown trees in Connecticut Woodlands magazine. It was a tradition that German immigrants brought to America. Legend has it that a “Hessian prisoner of war named Hendrick Rodemore (who had been captured at the Battle of Bennington that August) was working as a farm hand,” cut a small tree, and decorated it. The stone marks his cabin site.
Though energized by my pilgrimage, I was at a loss of where to procure my quarry. Our local land trust had canceled its sale to let its stock grow, and I didn’t want some spruce or balsam cut weeks ago and trucked from far away. So I asked my friend Jim Wheeler, pastor at the Congregational church a few doors from my house where he cut his tree.
Taking Jim’s recommendation, I drove several miles the next day, past a large reservoir and up a steep hill on a narrow, winding road to Steadman Family Tree Farm. It having snowed the day before, I brought not only my bow saw, but a blue plastic shovel. The proprietor, a taciturn and wiry older gentleman, was clearing the path between his house and barn. He pointed to a rolling hillside where evergreens stood in orderly aisles like soldiers awaiting inspection.
Trudging though little less than a foot of snow, I walked up and then down hill into the grove of frosted conifers where a couple of families were hauling away their trophy while the children laughed and frolicked and generally impeded progress. Someone had built a snowman between one of the rows.
With some trepidation born of inexperience, I ventured into the stand. I quickly spotted a good one, then one better, and then one even better yet. I walked up slope and down. Suddenly I grew dizzy among the choices. All looked the same and yet all looked different. It seemed every tree was simultaneously too tall and too short, had a bald spot or a broken leader. At last I found the perfect tree—or maybe just lost my powers of discernment. Nevertheless, I dug around the base, bent creakily under the branches with my saw and was soon dragging the pointed conifer out of the field under a blue sky dotted with cumulous clouds the color of fresh snow.
As evening descended, Mary and our daughter Ariel strung the tree with tiny white lights, a broad translucent pink ribbon, and mostly homemade ornaments. The house smelled of sweet, tangy balsam. Along with our daughter Tiki, we ate dinner basking in the soft sparkle of the tree as flames danced and crackled in the fireplace.
Light, warmth, food and conversation—it’s the universal recipe for a December holiday regardless of traditions or customs. And when it comes to such celebrations, there’s no doubt that it’s the more the merrier.