Editor’s note: The following Yarn was submitted as part of a previous Christmas Memories contest held by The Country Today.
The first signs of Christmas began months ahead of time when the plastic bag hanging from a hook in Mom and Dad’s tiny, overcrowded clothes closet in their bedroom began to bulge again. Throughout the year, Mom would throw in things she had picked up. Occasionally she pilfered the bag ahead of time to bribe or comfort one of us.
Christmas was closer in the air when Mother began making and sending our Christmas cards, in English and in Finnish. And it was serious when we began asking for a Christmas tree, but not truly serious until we were willing to comply with the prerequisites for a Christmas tree: The house had to be cleaned and junk put away so that it was worthy of and befitting so honored a guest as the Yule tree. Some years we got the tree early. Other years — especially as Mother got older — we didn’t get the tree until very close to Christmas, because she was no longer as willing to take up the slack in the cleaning.
Getting the Christmas tree was fun. We always got it off our land, and almost always Papa directed us to the tree that we ultimately chose. He had an eye for the potential ones, and he looked out for them all year long. In the end, Mother made the final decision, but always with everyone’s concurrence.
But long before we got to that, we harnessed a pony to a little sled that Ailena made as a small child — with her Papa’s help — out of poplar saplings. For many years it was our beloved Shetland, Sir Daisy, who got the privilege. After he died, Erla took over. We harnessed the pony to the sapling sled, attached a string of sleigh bells put together by an Amish man just for this one day a year, and trotted off, sleigh bells softly ringing, to search the usually snowy farm for just the right tree.
We did our loop: the grove of trees west of the ponds, which rarely yielded a result because most of the trees were too big or crowded, then to the spruce-scattered meadow near the creek at the end of the Highland Road Field. Often we found a nice open grown tree there. But even if the tree seemed right, we still had to finish the tour just in case there was a better one. We would head to the edge of the maple sap woods, but they were usually too spindly and tall, then to the field below the dam, where we often struck paydirt, but not before we checked out the edge of Windham Point field.
By then we usually knew which tree to return to. Papa cut the tree and we loaded it on the sled. Sometimes we cut a second tiny tree to put in Niina’s bedroom or to take to Grandma.
Then we headed back home with our beautiful, natural, unshorn tree with three good sides. Almost always some hazelnut or willow bush had intruded into the branches and thinned them out on one side.
At home came the most difficult job — because of Mother: How to trim enough beautiful branches off the bottom of the tree without traumatizing Mother, to get the tree into the stand and into the living room.
Once decorated, Christmas was really present. Every year Mother made some ornaments by hand, encouraging us to make some too. She quilled stars and geometric designs; wove eight-sided stars out of bright red paper, birch bark and corn husks; strung bittersweet capsules into yards-long garlands that circled the tree; crossed and bound pieces of straw into stars; and stitched fragments of coconut palm bark together to make little socks, a remembrance of times in Hawaii.
Although our family was not afraid to buy nice presents for Christmas, Christmas also always meant making gifts by hand, some worked on for a year or more. The pain of knitting her first scarf was rewarded to Niina by the proud praise of her big sister Ailena. Papa spent many hours one year making each of his daughters a cherry jewelry box consisting of five drawers each. For years Ailena drew beautiful horses for her mother. One year Ailena and Mother collaborated. Mother translated and printed Aunt Tellervo’s story, “Captain Courageous,” and Ailena illustrated it with color drawings.