Getting a Christmas tree was always a special time. But we didn’t go to a Christmas tree farm where there were rows upon rows of perfectly groomed Christmas trees, steaming hot chocolate to keep one warm, ample chotskies to purchase, or perfect family photo opportunities.
Instead, we donned snow shoes, suited up in layers of clothing, grabbed the sled, and went deep into the woods of my parents’ 400-acre farm, where we headed toward “Christmas tree swamp,” as my Dad referred to it.
What was special for me as a farm kid in the 1960s wasn’t finding the perfect tree, but rather the journey of getting there.
It was a time that I would have alone with my Dad, walking the mile-long trek through a sometimes dense forest back to the swamp, trudging on ill-fitting wooden snow shoes past every coniferous and deciduous tree that Wisconsin offers.
Each smelling different, and offering its own special beauty.
The snow would be pure, glinting in the sunshine, with shadows from the trees casting various shapes and definition to the powdery mounds.
We’d rustle up an occasional deer, and hear the sound of a pileated woodpecker hammering on a tree, or a cardinal singing.
And my Dad would point out every bird, every glistening snow form, and would name every single tree, and then quiz me about all of them on the journey back home.
It was pure magic. Dad was a farmer, former Marine, and not much of a talker. He spent most of his time just getting all of the tasks done that were required to run a family farm.
But these trips to the swamp, looking for the perfect tree, were always times of education and instilling intellectual curiosity on his daughter. They were times away from work, worries and chores.
Instead, they were times where daily tasks were at bay, and all that was before us was the beauty of nature, the quest for the perfect tree, and a time of bonding between father and daughter.
When we did arrive at the swamp, we would carefully survey the trees, walking around each that seemed viable, and Dad would ask my advice about which tree might work best.
Because these trees weren’t groomed, we would have to cut down a 20-foot tree, and take just the top several feet, because that was the best part of the tree.
Dad never picked the tree I suggested, because after all, what does a 6-year-old really know about picking out a tree — especially one that loomed so high above? However, I felt validated and proud that he would ask.
Once the tree was downed, we would tie it to the sled and begin the journey back to the farm, where the tree would end up in the drawing room of the farmhouse.
It would invariably have a big hole to fill, where extra branches would need to be tied in, and we’d put the lacking area in the corner, with the best side facing outward. Decorations would begin, and mounds of tinsel in strategic places would play an integral role in turning it into the perfect Christmas tree.
Dad is now approaching 94 and has been afflicted with dementia. He is living in the past more, and we never know which memory might surface, or which has receded to the point of no return.
I recently asked if he remembered how we used to get our Christmas trees when I was a kid, and he thought for a bit, digging deep, and he smiled whimsically and said, “of course, we got them from Christmas tree swamp.”
I hope he understands what an impactful and special time that going to the swamp was for his daughter.
While his memory has faded, the intellectual curiosity that he’s passed on will be a legacy that endures, as will the memories of the perfect trees we pulled from the Christmas tree swamp.