The presence and presents of the past

The first flakes of a Nor'easter were already falling as my daughter Ariel and I tiptoed across the frozen stream and walked up the hill into our fir stand. She had already scouted out a suitable tree to cut, if we could find that tree for the forest. We had to hurry. The chickadees were hunkering down in the hemlocks. The light was fading, too. But we wanted the right tree, a really tall tree.

The day we get our Christmas tree has always been special. When our kids were younger I used to bring home the tree from my classroom after the holiday assembly. I just tied it on the roof of my station wagon, strings of popcorn and ragged paper ornaments still attached, ready for its second act in our living room. Our three young kids didn't know that it wasn't a brand-new tree.

A Christmas tree is a miscellany of childhoods, by way of the hand-glued ornaments reminding us of school art projects and homespun crafts - some with fingerprints still intact. Out they come: the cookie-cutter ornaments, made of salt dough and embedded sparkles, most of which have decayed into crumbs. The miniature Amish quilts, Hilary's second-grade Guatemalan "God's Eyes," and Ariel's ceramic birds endure. School photos pasted on cardboard - Spencer missing his front teeth; me, in high school, reclining on a motorcycle - are on the tree tonight. Angels and stars rotate into pinnacle service. And lights, lots of lights.

Each year we cut a section from the tree trunk, count the rings, and inscribe a note as to who fetched it. We hang the section on the tree the following year, so each year's tree pays tribute to the one preceding. Last year, Hilary, not yet in college, inscribed the ornamental section: "Hilary, Ariel, and Dad cut this down. December 14, 2003." It dangles now from an upper branch on Tree '04.

We had my favorite Christmas tree the year I introduced the train tradition, when Spencer was 4. We started with a large-scale locomotive and a circle of track. Each year we added another box car, or more track, until our freight line stretched from the living room into the kitchen - the Boston & Maine. I have spent many Christmas hours lying under the tree listening to the realistic clickety-clack, loading and unloading cookies from the flatbed car, sending them over mountain and through tunnels to Spencerville. Train wrecks were Ariel's specialty, parking her baby buggy on the tracks to impress her brother at the controls.

Ariel and I found the preselected tree before dark, but noticed a disqualifying bald side to it. We trudged further up the hill and inspected a few more possibilities. Too tall, too thin, too sparse.

Then: just right. I sawed through the frozen trunk and Ariel tipped it gently to the ground. We grabbed the lower branches and dragged it base-first towards the house, as the dogs nipped playfully at the top.

During the two years we'd lived in California, we New Englanders were a bit disoriented when it came time to find a Christmas tree. The kids were still wearing shorts! There was no letup to the perfect summer weather! And nowhere to go and cut a fresh tree. We mail-ordered one from L.L. Bean, I'm ashamed to say. A Maine spruce arrived on our doorstep in a cardboard box, after undergoing a mandatory quarantine. A state agriculture agent inspected it before we could bring it inside. Out came the box of ornaments. Up went the angels, globes, glued popsicle sticks, five-year-old candy canes, and photos.

And the train. In a desert climate you can assemble the tracks in the driveway. We ran our freight service (renamed the Union Pacific that year) right through the garden.

Tonight Ariel and I manage to wrestle the tree through the front door and into its heavy cast-iron stand. It turns the house inside out, radiating the deep cold of the woods and perfuming the living room with its sap. The tip brushes the ceiling - a new height record. Now it's ornament time. We spiral 600 little white lights down the tree, from tip to floor. Bangor and Aroostook freight service will resume shortly. Ornaments wear out, but Spencerville always awaits cookies.

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