In my family it was always Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day itself, that was occasioned by high ritual. There was no tree beforehand. We found it odd that other people had trees for weeks beforehand, standing tall in the living room like new members of the family. Not us. Our father waited until the last minute to buy one and then snuck it into the family room, which we were temporarily forbidden to enter. The day passed as leaden as the usual wintertime Chicago skies—when would it ever end? My sisters and I must have played games or read books or gone for walks but none of that sticks in memory. What does is the glorious moment when, the early evening darkening, we heard a magical tinkling of “O Come Little Children”as the door opened and there in what had always before been a perfectly fine but also merely roomlike room stood a tall Christmas tree, fully decked out with lights and ornaments and presents below, all the more a spectacle because it had appeared out of nowhere. Even if we children knew there was something a little off about our dad’s absences on a day when we knew he wasn’t working, that we were not privy to any of the in-between stages of getting the tree ready dramatically increased the magic of its eventual unveiling.
That particular magic didn’t last long. Within a few more years we were eager to help choose and decorate the tree, so that earliest wonder of its materializing fully formed dissipated. And our beliefs in Santa took the usual hits that come from having siblings of multiple ages in school, carrying home contradictory messages from younger and older classmates, though it must be said the logic of having all the packages delivered by Santa had never made all that much sense anyway in a Midwestern family that followed the German tradition of exchanging gifts right after dinner on Christmas Eve. Our friends didn’t get their gifts delivered until sometime in the night! Why did ours arrive so early? It seemed to require an über-German package delivery system. Maybe the Weihnachtsmann was using some sort of fleet of remote-controlled drones to deliver packages? Wouldn’t that be crazy?
But the general magic of Christmas remained. There were rituals we could count on and look forward to, and even as children we could sense how they allowed year to build upon year in a deep and cumulative way. It was mere happenstance that my parents, like many others in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, tried out fondue cooking as a popular fad, but once they settled on the perfect Swiss gruyere cheese fondue as the appropriate dish for a leisurely Christmas Eve dinner, there was scarcely any turning back—the children, and later the grandchildren, came to demand that highly social, and highly fatty, dish as an essential component of the evening. It became a ritual.
Not a ritual in the casual way we often use the word to convey an almost-automatic or thoughtless action, but in the deeper sense of a mindful act, something that connects.
These days in Flagstaff things have changed. They’ve had to. My parents are gone and with them the tradition of celebrating on Christmas Eve. The cheese fondue was deposed, a victim of lactose intolerance. But I’m pleased to relate that we’ve added a new tradition, a new ritual. It’s the tree. When I was a kid they used to materialize on vacant lots all over the suburbs, shipped in from the same sorts of places we used to spend summer vacation. They were shapely and aromatic firs, but they were anonymous.
No longer. Living as we do surrounded by conifers, we get to cut our own tree now and to feel that we’re doing a small ecological favor as we do. We need a tree; the forests and woodlands need thinning. So each early December we mount a small expedition up to Gray Mountain to visit the Kaibab National Forest.
A few times we’ve raced snow as we drive, but more often it’s the postcard weather of late fall in Arizona: long tawny vistas, the land pulled into itself by cold as it awaits the onset of winter moisture. The dirt roads that spiderweb out into the piñon-juniper give off plumes of dust as we poke along, looking for the perfect ecotonality for Christmas trees. We want a place where a dense patch of piñons gives way to a sagebrush opening. We want a place where the tree has had room to grow in every direction, so that it’s rounded, but not too much room, as then it’s one of those stand-alone sentinel trees that we wouldn’t want to take. We want the right height, which is a surprisingly tricky thing to judge out in the PJ. How high is our ceiling really?
The first time our son engaged in this ritual he was a baby in a sling. Now he’s a scout, roaming unseen through the brush on his own: how about this one? We debate, assess the relative virtues of one tree compared to another, try to figure out how to get back to that one we left before—which stand was that one in?
And eventually we settle on what will be for that year the perfect tree. I kneel down with the same red bow saw that has done so much pruning for us at home. I try for a flat cut as close to the ground as possible, though this year, by special request, I also cut out a half-inch-thick “tree cookie” that our son can sand off at home. Because he wants to count the rings.
A minute or two of cutting, and the tree is down. Now come all the hard parts: walking it back to the car, mounting it on top, driving back, getting it to stand in its stand, decorating. It’s not all as much fun as the cutting expedition itself. But then for the next month a little bit of the big vista places stands in our living room.
And the tree cookie? It gets sanded off. Turns out it’s amazing how slowly those piñons grow, up there on the dry sagey flats. Like a ritual itself, there’s a lot of life and memory packed in there.