A home-grown, Texas Christmas tree

`CHRISTMAS in Denmark'' was the title of a movie that was shown every year about this time at my elementary school in northern California. I don't think any of us had the slightest idea why we were treated year upon year to the same country's version of the holiday season: the hunt, by sleigh, through miles of lush green forest for the perfect Christmas tree, and the trip home through deep, pristine snow with the day's ``catch''; then the evening spent decorating the tree with fine wooden, metal, and paper decorations, as Mother brought out successive trays of appropriately decorated butter cookies and other delights. In any case, it convinced us all of what the perfect Christmas was supposed to be like, even if off-screen we had to settle for a tree from a rain-soaked corner lot and store-bought Danish cookies from a round blue tin. I forgot all about ``Christmas in Denmark'' until last year when a couple of friends asked if I'd like to accompany them to some nearby family property to chop down a Christmas tree. Perhaps you'll understand my astonishment when I explain that several months prior to this invitation I had moved from the Northeast to Texas. And even though I live in what Texans reverently refer to as ``the hill country'' - the rolling, well-watered, oak-trimmed central region of the state that stands on the edge of arid west Texas - I was still unsure of just what sort of tree they meant.

Somehow I couldn't see hanging balls, tinsel, and lights on a six-foot oak or mesquite. Besides, hadn't a local television station just done a news-hour feature on ``how your Christmas tree gets to you from North Carolina''? Hadn't the state tree in the Capitol rotunda been carefully shipped from somewhere north? And hadn't I seen a sign on a sun-baked tree lot declaring proudly, ``Michigan trees''?

``Christmas trees grow in Texas?'' I asked.

The answer, coming from a native Texan, was an enthusiastic ``Yes!'' I would have to understand, however, that the tree would be a cedar - a variety that was fast falling out of favor as Northerners moved south, bringing along a preference for needled trees with more horizontal branches, for ornament hanging, than the cedar affords. But for my friend's family, the tree that had served so well for so many years was still the first choice. Besides, the outing to find the right cedar was a long family tradition.

And so we set out, our sleigh a rumbling Chevy pickup, the warm December sun prohibiting anything more protective than shirt-sleeves.

Actually, it wasn't until I stepped on a prickly pear that I thought of ``Christmas in Denmark.'' The vision made me stop: What would those little Bergs or Hansens have thought of trudging through cactus and mesquite to find the perfect tree? I decided they might have been a bit put off at first, as I had been, by the fire-ant hills and the suspicious gaze of the cattle that grazed the land.

But as it turned out, there were hundreds and hundreds of tall green cedars mixed among the Spanish and live oaks. So what did the absence of sleigh and snow matter, with so many fine arboreal candidates to choose from?

Coming on a newborn calf lying on a bed of straw erased further the old notion of how the hunt for the Christmas tree should be. Seeing the little beast struggle to its wobbly legs, under mother's protective eye, suggested another scene long held dear, that of the very first Christmas. With thoughts like these, hunting for a tree in sunny Texas was making more sense all the time. I was getting into it.

The clincher came, of course, in the form of just the right cedar. I spotted it from a ways off, and it took circumventing a swampy pool, where a lone turtle still sat out in the sun, to reach its side. A close inspection revealed no bald spots, no incongruous branches, but rather green conical symmetry. It was the perfect Christmas tree.

The search complete, we loaded our trees into the back of the pickup and headed home. Of course, I, a newcomer, had to endure some ribbing for having found what the natives agreed was the day's best catch. In my head I was already placing favorite ornaments on my cedar's limbs when we passed a Christmas tree lot with a big sign out front boasting in large red and green letters, ``Imported Trees.'' And the trees they offered did indeed resemble the one I'd seen cut down every year by that family in Denmark.

Nice, but not for me, I thought. This would be a Christmas in Texas.

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