Here in Haines, Alaska, our family used to cut its own Christmas tree before there was any other option. Now, we give the Boy Scouts $20 and they cut us a spruce tree at the old Army fuel-tank farm. It's a toxic-waste cleanup site. On the bright side, whatever the Army used to kill the weeds worked. The alder hasn't choked out the young evergreens, so there's a whole hillside full of perfect-looking Christmas trees.
While pines make for better Christmas trees, they're harder to come by here. So we must make do with a spruce tree - which has needles so sharp you need work gloves to decorate it. And if you aren't diligent about watering, the needles fall off like ashes every time a dog walks by.
Putting up the tree is my husband's department. But I remind him that we need a new stand. The old one broke last year.
We soon discover that there are no stands left at the stores in Haines. The only other stands are 90 miles by ferry or small plane in Juneau or 300 miles by road in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
So my husband improvises. To make the tree fit in the house, he lops off the top. The tree stands in the metal wash tub we keep in the skiff to hold dead salmon. I decide not to mention either concern.
Actually, the spruce and fish smell nice together - like the beach.
We wrap the tree in colored lights and cover it in handmade ornaments. The children recognize them all. I mention that maybe this year we should skip the shoes, but they shout "no" in unison.
I have one of each of my children's first shoes hanging from ribbons. I also saved all the decorations they've ever made. You do the math - five children ages 13 to 20 - that's a lot of school projects. There are dry dough lumps from kindergarten, elementary school photos sandwiched inside hanging holiday frames, and little ceramic halibuts from high school art classes swinging from their tails by silk yarn.
The newest ornaments are the half-dozen fairies my neighbor made for us last year. They have gauze-ribbon dresses and wolf-fur hair. They twirl on fishing line, waving their magic wands like a funky flock of heavenly hostesses.
My neighbor touches one, smiles, and pronounces the tree "just right" because "everything on it means something." I look at all of us sitting around the loaded, topless, spruce tree and realize it is a lot like love: a little prickly, fragile, imperfect, and all mixed up - yet shining so brightly it lights up the darkest evenings of the year.