My first summer job was trimming Christmas trees in July. It was a shitty job, like most summer employment, badly paid and of dubious purpose. You might think that pines, spruces, and firs grow naturally into their pyramidal shapes. “Back, behind us,” Elizabeth Bishop writes in one of her beautiful poems about Maine, “the dignified tall firs begin./ Bluish, associating with their shadows,/ a million Christmas trees stand/ waiting for Christmas.” The truth is that evergreens are as various in their search for sunlight as the rest of us Earth-dwellers. Branches splay out every which way; two or three prongs vie for the apex; spindly trunks wind their way around rocks or adjacent oak trees. They do not look as though they are auditioning for Christmas cards. It was to wage war on this natural idiosyncrasy that we tree-trimmers were hired, to march up and down the long rows of trees and introduce some uniformity into the chaos.
I don’t remember how the news reached us, in our rust-belt town in Indiana, that boys were being hired, at ninety-five cents an hour—minimum wage, we were informed, as though no additional lure were required—to trim Christmas trees in neighboring Ohio. We answered the call like birds summoned south in September. Loaded into flatbed trucks in the morning darkness, we were driven across the nearby border, under an ugly green arch that identified our town, absurdly, as the “Gateway to the East,” and on to Brookville. We weren’t exactly migrant workers crossing the Rio Grande. And yet, for half the year, Indiana was in a different time zone than Ohio, cussedly refusing (just as our county rejected fluorinated water as a Commie plot) to join the rest of the East in Daylight Savings Time. “If God wanted us to have more daylight,” according to a letter in the local Palladium-Item, “He would have given it to us.”
It was scorching hot in July, of course, but we wore long-sleeved flannel shirts and blue jeans against the pine needles. Armed with heavy shears, we moved methodically down the rows of trees, making executive decisions about which tall branch would henceforth be the top, where the angel or star would be placed. Contenders were sacrificed, along with overlong branches that exceeded the length of those below. When we were done with each tree, it looked, sometimes a little forlornly, as if it just might pass muster in a living room. Five more months of growth would hide the surgery.
My parents were ambivalent about Christmas in general, and always insisted, scornfully, on a “live tree.” We didn’t buy our tree from a Christmas tree farm. We bought it from a nursery. With its bulky ball of roots wrapped in burlap, the tree, even if only two or three feet tall, was extremely heavy, requiring all three brothers to hoist it to the living room. There, it was ensconced in a metal tub and decked with our mostly homemade decorations, along with the candle-holders, outfitted with little clasps, imported from Germany.
Actually, pretty much our whole Christmas was imported from Germany. My father had left Berlin in 1935 to live with a refugee family, assimilated Jews like him, in London. Christmas was celebrated in such families, and in ours, at arm’s length. We gave modest gifts, laid them under our little live tree, and opened them on Christmas Eve, “in the German fashion,” we were told. We ate lebkuchen and pfeffernüsse and marzipan. My parents had both converted to Quakerism before their marriage, an additional complicating factor. Just as Quakers refuse to take oaths on the conviction that they always tell the truth—a burden for me during the Pledge of Allegiance, religiously practiced in Indiana public schools, where I sheepishly refused to cross my heart—they also do not, traditionally, celebrate holidays, on the belief that all days are equally holy.
The Tannenbaum, oddly, was the focus of many of our rituals. After it survived the dry indoor heat and the scary real candles, we carried it outside to be planted with its predecessors. These grew in a long line along one side of our modest “ranch house”: two hallways—one was the kitchen and the other gave on three bedrooms and a bathroom—with a family room at one end and a living room, which doubled as my father’s study, at the other, all laid upon a concrete slab. This row of evergreens eventually came to resemble the rows at the Christmas tree farm in Brookville, awaiting the trimmers. There’s no sign of the trees on Google Earth. I just checked. I wouldn’t be surprised if later property owners cut them down, one by one, for Christmas trees, cheap at the price.
Now, I have my own family, here in Emily Dickinson’s Amherst, once as hostile to “Papist” Christmas as the Quakers were. At Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson spent one ambivalent year, and where I now teach, the founder, Mary Lyon, determined that the best way to “celebrate” Christmas—when girls were required to remain on campus, lest they be tempted by holiday frivolity—was by fasting. “How magnificent the ‘Christmas tree,’ must have been,” Emily wrote a close friend in 1847, the year she enrolled at Mount Holyoke. “I had a great many presents, Christmas, New Year’s holidays—both—but we had no celebration of the former which you describe.”
My family is very passionate about Christmas trees. We insist—or rather, my wife and our two sons insist—that the search for the tree must be arduous. We are surrounded in bosky Amherst by small Christmas tree farms, as I meekly point out, but instead we drive over an hour to remote Ashfield, up near the Vermont border, to a particular farm. There, outfitted with saws and a large cart, a sort of wheeled gurney, we hike to where the trees are, a half hour’s climb up the sloping path. Then, with much discussion—should cuteness be a factor, or some elusive element of character?—we select our tree. According to a recent piece in The New York Times, Christmas trees cut in Nova Scotia are classified as “perfect,” “fancy,” or merely “choice.”
Something like the same categories govern our own decisions, as I experience flashbacks to Christmas in July, in Brookville, Ohio. It is difficult, especially in high snow, to cut the tree at the base. When the paths are icy, the trip down can be hazardous. By the time we get the tree home, in the back of my wife’s pickup truck, we feel we’ve earned it. I’ve earned it. At ninety-five cents an hour, I feel like I’m due some serious back pay.