Local Writer Reflects on His Family’s Winter Traditions (The Final Word Opinion Column)

Conventional wisdom: A meditation on one family’s enduring winter ritual



illustration woman holding christmas treeIllustration by Chris Reed

The holidays are over, the five-week feast finished, the wreath removed from the front door. Every few days, one of our neighbors hauls a naked Christmas tree to the curb.

On our Pleasant Valley farmette, we have a different tree tradition. After the ornaments and quarter-mile of Christmas lights are removed, it’s laid by the bird feeders in the front yard beneath the 200-year-old maple tree. Our resident crowd of chickadees and finches shelter in it, protected from the wind and blowing snow — and from the sharp-shinned hawk — and munch sunflower seeds. Traditionally, it stays there until someone drags it to the burn pit near the barn, thus arbitrarily announcing the end of winter — or the beginning of mud season, the forerunner of spring. Once it wasn’t burned until April Fool’s Day.

But we didn’t have a real Christmas tree this year. In fact, the four-foot Norfolk pine my wife bought will stay by the front door — wearing a strand of tiny white lights — indefinitely. So the overall tree tradition is officially finished.

When we arrived in the Hudson Valley from Baltimore 26 years ago with a three-year-old daughter and a son on the way, we were devoid of Christmas traditions. My 94-year-old great-uncle, whom we’d come to nurse in his tumbledown Dutch Colonial home, instructed us to cut down one of the Christmas trees he’d planted by the pond. Apparently he hadn’t hiked to the pond in quite a while; the trees were all 20 feet tall. But our daughter Kerry, itching to chop down our tree, was not to be deterred. We slogged up and down the rows of balsam and fir trees at a nearby tree farm until we — or rather she — spotted the perfect tree. She handed me the dull, rusted bow saw she’d been clutching. I lay on my back in the cold muck and sawed and sawed and sawed through the tree’s trunk. My arm went numb. The snow fell gently onto my upturned face. My wife laughed uncontrollably. My daughter danced with glee. And lo, our Christmas tree tradition was born.

Traditions are made of equal parts love, repetition, recollection, and an indomitable desire for permanence. They can slowly mutate, but the essential acts that make up a tradition stay the same, at least in our minds. The tree farm of our first outing has disappeared beneath the rolled-out lawns and prefab homes of a characterless subdivision. My daughter now brings her own daughter, and my sturdy son-in-law gets the honor of laying in the snow beneath the lucky tree. I have joined the chorus of carolers while he shivers and saws and saws and saws. Twenty-six years later we’re still using the same saw that needed replacement long ago. There are newer, sharper ones hanging in the barn, but — well, it’s tradition.

How many repetitions does a new tradition require? How much can it change and yet still remain a tradition? Must Dad do the sawing, or can Granddad take a few turns for old time’s sake? Can a spunky six-year-old boy be allowed to lay in the icy mud for “his turn”? Can a tradition be put on hold until a parent returns from war or prison? Can tradition survive solely as a dim memory of a 94-year-old farmer who has outlived all the previous participants in a lifelong custom?

I am unsure how to respond to these queries, but I do know the answer to the question that is the acid test of a tradition’s importance: Who cares? Those who question why we bother re-enacting some seemingly silly, outdated ritual are immune to the power of shared love. Sometimes joining in the fun can bring understanding and appreciation. At other times, it’s the shared suffering and honor that enlightens the newcomer. Tradition is a thread, and with each repetition it becomes the tie that binds the participants closer together.

Like the stories that surround and enliven them, traditions belong to those who pass them down. There are no strict rules of enforcement, at least not in our family. After all, if it weren’t for the discarded tree my wife retrieved from our neighbors’ garbage can yesterday — a new addition to the tradition — the birds would have no safe haven this winter.

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