The remarkable journey of a single Christmas tree

December 21, 2011

This is the story of one tree, and the story of all trees that make the unlikely but entirely common journey from forest to family room. One year ago, in the weeks before Christmas, we made that trip ourselves in the company of a particular seven-foot Fraser fir. Along the way, we met the people that put the trees in Christmas, and the moments that put Christmas in the tree.

* * *

The Tree stands packed with other trees, indistinguishable in the little felled forest that leans along the racks. The firs are all still bunched in the upright, uptight shipping pose needed for the tractor-trailer that dropped them off two days earlier, their limbs seized by twine in a severe pillar that belies their shaggy looseness.

Since the spring of 2003, its world had been the mountain, its life the unchanging rhythm of slow growth and summer prunings.

The Tree does have a shape and character of its own. But its uniqueness will remain theoretical until someone pulls it from the anonymous mass, shakes it free, examines it, knows it. And, finally, anoints it. “Honey? I think I found one.”

But for now, the Tree is just one of the 30 million that have been cut and shipped around the country as of this second Saturday in December. Some are already deep into their brief star turn as holiday icons, adorned and alight in living rooms and front halls, bank lobbies and town squares. Others, like the 400 or so in this lot beside Frager’s Hardware on Capitol Hill, are still waiting to bloom into the garish centerpiece of America’s defining cultural maelstrom, the year-end blizzard of sentimentality, commerce and botany.

All day, shoppers come in from Pennsylvania Avenue. At first glance, they are as indistinguishable as the trees they seek, a short spectrum of dark topcoats and fleece. But it takes only seconds for a tree seller to fit a tree buyer into one of the major categories.

“Usually, I can tell by the time they get to the first tree,” says Elizabeth Philbrick, the manager of Frager’s tree lot. “You’ve got your ...”

Newlyweds, who must gingerly reconcile his inviolate family tradition of jolly fat trees with her devotion since girlhood to ceiling scrapers. (Coming later that night, icicles vs. tinsel.)

The Junior Leaguer, who cares mostly about a just-so shape and branches capable of carrying all 12 of her Waterford crystal bells.

The Dad on a Mission, who stops on the way home and buys the tree closest to the cash register.

The Tree Rescuer, who looks for the bare patches and skimpy branches of a “Charlie Brown tree” to redeem with love and paper chains.

But mostly there are families. The kids who see picking a tree not as an errand but an adoption. Who fan out to find the tallest one, even if it means cutting three years of growth from the trunk. Who are berserk with anticipation for the domestic alchemy about to occur, when this creature of the cold woods is transformed into the ultimate totem of indoor warmth by the application of charms collected over generations.

Inside the fenced lot, a little girl in a puffy blue jacket slips on the evergreen needles that coat the floor. Philbrick grabs a paperwhite bulb from behind the counter and presents it to the girl, telling her to put it in a pot with rocks and water and wait for the “Christmas miracle flower.”

The girl stares with wide and drying eyes. Her mom mouths a “Thank you.”

“Everybody in this neighborhood is family; we see them every year,” says Dwayne Thomas with a grunt, as he heaves an eight-foot Fraser on top of a Honda Accord. Last year, he lashed a tabletop fir across the hood of a kid’s plastic pedal car.

Thomas, who grew up on Bladensburg Road behind the National Arboretum, never had a real Christmas tree as a kid. It was the same plastic tree from the attic December after December, until he discovered the scent of fresh evergreen while working at a nursery 12 years ago.

“Once I got that smell ...” he says, putting his work gloves up to his face. “This year, I brought two of my sons, and we picked it out together.”

Several families have passed by the Tree. Some have touched it, turned it, dismissed it. But in the late afternoon, it has made it into the final two for a dad and two daughters. Philbrick holds the two trees as the girls, ages 7 and 8, consider them.

“They can dance,” Philbrick says, twirling them, “and sing: Doot doot doo dee doot.”

The father stands behind his girls. “You want me to decide? I have to carry it in, so I’d pick that one. It looks lighter.”

The girls’ fingers swing the other way, toward the Tree. “That one!”

The father is David Butler, 46, who works in the production department of the Washington National Opera. He steps forward, gives the Tree a test heft, tugs on a branch.

When he was a boy in Wexford, Ireland, his family didn’t choose its own tree. His godfather, Ted Doyle, would come each year a few days before Christmas Eve, a tree from his farm tied to the top of the big sedan. David and his dad would help Mr. Doyle lug it up the steps; Mrs. Doyle would come into the kitchen for a quick cup of tea with David’s mother.

“Two hours later, they’d still be sitting there, drinking tea, maybe a glass of wine, while Dad put the lights on the tree,” he remembers.

Now David is the dad, and he does choose the tree.

“It is a good tree,” he murmurs, turning the Fraser.

He turns to Philbrick, asks this question:

“Where did it come from?”

* * *

Three days earlier, the Tree is high on an Appalachian slope in northwestern North Carolina. It is the fifth tree from the left in the third row from the top on a steep patch of Ashe County belonging to Barr Evergreens.

Below spreads a broad snow-dusted valley carpeted with thousands of trees. Few of them are taller than seven feet, and most are mere saplings. There are some blue spruces and a smattering of white pines down near a pond winking sunlight from its frozen surface. But most, like the Tree, are Frasers. They are in a plantation forest, standing in rigid ranks. Some sections run perpendicular to others, and the scene spreading before the Tree is a vast cross-stitch sampler over the rolling and snowy land.

The scene is breezeless and perfectly still, except for a muffled scrunch of lively boots in the snow. A figure in a blue pointed cap and trim ginger beard moves from tree to tree, a tall man, stout in his padded overalls. Rusty Barr, 42, a second-generation Ashe County tree farmer, grew up in these regimented woods near the town of Crumpler, and his years have long been defined by the carousel calendar of the tree: planting, pruning, thinning, fertilizing.

“Sometimes, by the 22nd of December or so, I can be a little, ‘Bah, humbug, I don’t even want a Christmas tree at home,’ ” Barr says. “But I love Christmas, and my wife loooves Christmas. We’ve never skipped a year. Sometimes, we do take it down pretty quick, but we’ve never skipped a year.”

He works with a handful of orange ribbons in one hand and a tall staff in the other. At each tree, he holds up the staff, judges the tree’s height by the pole’s taped gradations and, if the tree’s tip falls between the five- and six-foot marks, twists on a ribbon with a practiced flurry of fingers.

He flits along the row, marking the trees to be cut the next day for the Frager’s order. At the peak of the harvest, he might tag 1,000 trees a day. This is toward the end of a cutting season. Barr’s seasonal crew, mostly Latino migrants on agricultural visas who spend the rest of the year cutting tobacco or digging sweet potatoes, began to gather in mid-October.

“Some of these guys have been with us 14, 15 years,” Barr says, his ruddy face seasoned by an open-air career, his voice tuned to a sharp twang by generations in Appalachia. He was born, and lives still, 12 miles down the road in West Jefferson, where his grandparents built a chair factory long before the Christmas tree business boomed. “We’re like family. I’ve gotten to where I can count pretty good in Spanish.”

There were still pumpkins on the town’s porches when his crew of about 40 men, some of whom bunk in trailers around the equipment yard, divided into five teams and set off into the half-million trees growing on Barr properties. They have cut, baled and shipped more than 40,000 trees by the time Barr approaches the Tree with a fistful of orange ribbons, tagging one of the last batches of the year. He tied three extra ribbons on at the very top, marking the Tree for the purposes of this story.

This is a fateful day for the Tree, maybe the most fateful since February 1998, when a technician dropped a tiny seed into a special growing compound.

The Tree was lucky from the beginning. Given the 50 percent germination rate typical of Fraser firs, it was as likely as not that the seed would be a complete dud. But the tiny seed stirred. The double helixes inside began their grand molecular knitting. A minuscule shoot appeared, reaching up. A thread of rhizome crept out, digging down. The Tree was born.

It was nature’s miracle, to be sure, but it unfolded in a wholly artificial setting: a germination facility operated by the paper giant Weyerhaeuser outside of Rochester, Wash. In a five-acre forest under glass, engineers fiddled with air conditioners, humidifiers and heated trays to speed the Tree through several winter-summer cycles in its first few months. After just 11 months, it graduated from the incubator as a precocious eight-inch seedling, ready to sink itself into earth proper.

The Tree sprouted in the Pacific Northwest, but its roots, the figurative ones anyway, were deep in the mountains of the East. Abies fraseriis native to the middle reaches of Appalachia, particularly the peaks of western North Carolina.

It was discovered here in the late 1700s by Scottish botanist John Fraser, and then largely ignored for commercial purposes until the 1950s. That’s when someone took note of its shape, fragrance and remarkable ability to hang onto its soft needles. An agricultural revolution was sparked in these poor mountains, where not much else grew all that well. The Tree itself was born of seeds pulled by hand from fir cones gathered on these slopes by the Mount Rogers Area Christmas Tree Growers Association.

“Now, that’s some sappy work, pulling those cones apart,” Barr says. It takes 50 pounds of cones to produce a pound of seeds; there are 20,000 seeds in a pound.

A year earlier, Barr had bought 70 pounds of seeds, at $185 a pound, and shipped the lot to Weyerhaeuser. At a half-will-fail germination rate, he needed nearly a million and a half seeds to produce the 700,000 trees he wanted.

In January of 1999, the Tree was packed into a box with 750 other small seedlings, called plugs at that tender stage, and frozen solid. At 28 degrees, the organisms were completely dormant, not growing but not losing energy. In all, 680,000 plugs were shipped back home.

In early spring, Barr and a crew led by one his longest-serving workers, Israel Chapuz-Luis, began the slow job of planting the plugs in “line-out” beds on a Barr nursery farm near the New River. For four years, the Tree grew a bit taller and developed its root system in cushier conditions than it would get on the mountainside.

Finally, in March of 2003, using a mechanical planter pulled by a John Deere tractor, the crew set the Tree on the ridge.

Chapuz-Luis came from the subtropics of Veracruz, Mexico, two decades ago. Now, he tends his own patch of Fraser firs behind a house he owns down the road. He sells about 200 trees a year, earning $3,000 or so, but he always brings one in through his own back door.

“We never had one in my house when I was a boy,” Chapuz-Luis says. “But now, we have one every year. It is our tradition now. My kids, they are American. This is what they know.”

Barr is a generation older than the Chapuz-Luis children, but he, too, grew up in a Fraser-filled world, with trees crowding every spare acre and filling every idle day. As a youngster, he cut them, carried them, planted them, tripped over them in the predawn starts to many a workday.

Barr remembers long climbs up Roan Mountain with his father in the days when new plantings came not from high-tech greenhouses but from wild seedlings collected under Forest Service allotments. He remembers particularly the time he got separated in the fog and wandered lost for an hour, his half-empty burlap sack on his shoulder.

Every high school summer was spent locked in a Herculean chore of trimming the tips of the branches on every Fraser on the farm, to perfect their density and shape. With his 16-inch pruning knife, he could do a tree in 45 seconds, 800 to a 1,000 a day.

He studied business management at Appalachian State University in nearby Boone. These days, with half a million trees growing on four farms, he spends a lot more time in the two-room office in the corner of the evergreen-scented warehouse, many more hours on the cellphone that works about half the time out in his rolling fields. But it’s still a rare day when he doesn’t dance with an evergreen or two.

“When Rusty comes home, he smells so good,” says Melissa Barr, his wife of 19 years who comes from a Fraser-growing family herself. “It just seems like these trees have always been a big part of our lives.”

Melissa works part time amid the file cabinets and pin maps in the Barr office. And while their son, Avery, 16, plans to apply to medical school, Olivia, 13, seems to have to caught the family thing for trees. As the sun casts long evening shadows from the rows of Frasers, she joins Rusty in the truck for his last tagging run of the day.

That evening, after dinner with his father, Wilson Barr, in a restaurant called Frasers in the four-block downtown of West Jefferson, Rusty and Melissa walk into their house and plug in their own Christmas tree.

It’s a big one. The angel at the top is only a halo’s width from the nine-foot ceiling. They had to trim the tip to get it in. “We hate to do that,” the tree farmer and his wife both say at the same instant, and then laugh together, too.

* * *

The Tree’s last morning on the mountain breaks colder still. It’s 15 degrees when Barr and his crew pull up on the ridge in their short diesel caravan: two pickups filled with chain saws and gas cans, a tractor pulling the baler and a flat-bed trailer. One man kneels before a tree and places the quivering saw against its trunk. The other holds the lower branches out of the way with a long pole, and grabs the upper trunk with his free hand, ready to lower the severed tree gently to the earth like a faith healer’s assistant. And then, seven years and nine months after arriving, the Tree is in its spot no more. A two-stroke whine, and there’s nothing left but a sliver of stump and a crime-scene shadow of sawdust.

But there is no guilt here, no sense of loss. This is work. They cut and drag for an hour, until an odor of exhaust and evergreen hangs in the air, and more than 300 trees lie massed in the narrow lanes.

Chapuz-Luis backs the baler, a narrow trailer with what looks a jet engine housing mounted at one end, into position. When the gasoline motor is roaring, two men wrangle a tree up to the mouth of the tube, trunk first, until a third can grab it with a pair of iron clamps attached to heavy chains. The switch is thrown, everyone leans away, and the chains winch the tree inexorably through. As the limbs compress, a pair of spinnerets twirls 90-pound test line along its length. From the other end emerges a straitjacketed, ready-to-ship Christmas tree.

By late afternoon, the wagon is parked in the farm yard, and the crew is humping trees into the truck bound for Washington. They haul each bundle — an eight-foot Fraser can weigh 75 pounds — to a mobile conveyor that trundles it up to the trailer. Despite the cold, a steam of sweat rises from their necks.

As the men trudge by, Barr stands at the base of the conveyers with a clipboard in his mittened hands, struggling to keep track of the color-coded ribbons tied to each tree.

“Sing-qwen-tay uno, sing-qwen-tay dos,” he calls out, then into the dark interior of the truck. “Hold on, hold on. How many blues you got up there, Israel? Sing-qwen-tay cinqo ... fifty-five?”

He squints at his clipboard. “One a y’all needs to learn to count.”

Some 400 trees on, the invoices are reconciled, the little forest is packed in the trailer, and the workers are ready to swing the wide rear doors closed. At the very top of the pile, closest to the rear and marked with extra ribbons, lies the Tree.

Rusty Barr is done. He has cared for these trees for the better part of a decade, from seed to saw. Now he stops in the tiny bathroom off the office to wash away some of the day’s resin. Sap is tough; a thorough cleaning requires alcohol or some solvent. In the fading light of a long workday, there a few dark smears of it still clinging to his hands when he comes out, wiping them on his soiled jacket.

“How about some barbecue,” he says. “I’m starved.”

* * *

At 3:20 a.m., a pale haze appears in the north. A rumble follows, a whoosh of brakes, and Jeff Brooks pulls up in his International Eagle, flooding the roadside with high-beam white.

“I do not like to drive this thing in city traffic,” he says, jumping down from the cab with a flashlight. “Especially in rush hour.”

Brooks, 43, left his sleeping family in Statesville, an hour away from the Barr farm. But his people came from these hills, which he knows well, and he is undaunted by the challenge of maneuvering a 60,000-pound trailer on the midnight mountain. A balky brake coupling stymies him for a half an hour, but soon he and the Tree are on their 365-mile run to Capitol Hill, at a rate of $3 a mile.

“I been knowing Rusty all my life,” he says, the glow of the dash casting orange shadows under his eyes. “Delivered a lot of trees for him.”

Brooks is not a hard-core long-haul driver. In flush times, he designs engine parts for NASCAR racing teams. But that’s unsteady work, and he bought the truck and got his commercial license to fill in the gaps. Mostly he hauls loads of landscape trees, 100 balled white pines to a Home Depot in Indiana or North Dakota. This time of year, though, it’s all about the Christmas trade.

“I like delivering the trees,” he says. “People are happy to see me. I guess Christmas puts them in a good mood.” Brooks pauses, a streetlight trapezoid gliding over his face. “You know, I really been doing this since I was a kid. Delivering Christmas trees, I mean.”

Brooks’s grandfather worked for the Barr sawmill and rented a house on Barr land. In the 1970s, when Jeff Brooks’s family came to town from Durham for Thanksgiving, they would cross the street and pay to cut their own Fraser and drive it home. Soon, other Durham residents were asking for mountain-grown trees, and the Brookses began returning with a trailer full of them. When he was barely a teenager, Jeff Brooks was helping to drop trees all around town, for neighbors, other teachers in his mother’s school, a great tall one for the church.

“We’d have a pretty long list, 30 folks sometimes,” he says. “Folks would come by and pick ’em up, or we’d drive around and leave them up against the back of their house in the shade. They’d come by and pay us whenever.”

They were the Christmas tree family.

“I guess I’m still at it,” Brooks says as he steers into a travel plaza near Troutville, Va., and pulls slowly into a space between a Roadway Express rig and a few hundred tons of something bound for a Wal-Mart. “The load sure is lot bigger, though.”

* * *

The tradition of the indoor winter tree emerged in Northern Europe, where towns from Latvia to Germany show evidence of the practice starting in the 15th century. But the hallowed place of midwinter evergreens reaches even further, with Romans, Norsemen and Egyptians all bringing green boughs indoors as a way of fending off the winter solstice blues.

By the 18th century, small household trees had become common in Germany’s Rhineland. By the 19th, the custom began to spread among the wealthy of Europe and Britain.

Many scholars credit George Ticknor, a wealthy Bostonian who had observed the custom in Dresden, Germany, with erecting the first tree in an American living room to gain significant public notice. One of the guests at the Ticknor Christmas party in 1843 was Mrs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wife of the poet and a local luminary. In her diary, she raved about Ticknor’s “pyramid of light.”

“The next year, she had one in her parlor window,” says Penne Restad, who teaches American history at the University of Texas and is the author of “Christmas in America: A History.” The tree trend began to spread incrementally among the fashionable and the urban.

American churches, particularly in the stern Protestant denominations of New England, were not pleased with the innovation. In fact, they didn’t much care for the idea of Christmas at all, of which they could find no mention in their New Testaments, according to Restad.

“The Catholics in Europe were all over Christmas, and this was not good news for the Calvinists in America,” Restad says. “There were too many lights for them, too much music.”

But other churches latched onto the Christmas tree fad as a way of attracting young people to Sunday school. In spite of disapproving glowers from some pulpits, the craze grew.

European trees were tabletop models, used to display a few modest gifts amid a candle or two. But in booming America, as the gifts grew larger and more numerous, the tree migrated to the floor and stretched toward the ceiling. The scattering of hanging trinkets became heaps of presents at the base of the trunk. A few candles became a dazzling blaze of them.

America was a wooded nation, with evergreens free for the taking along many a country lane. But the tree started as a city trend, and a supply chain was needed to get it into town.

The first confirmed Christmas tree lot appeared on the sidewalk at New York’s Washington Market in 1851, according to Karal Ann Marling, a late art historian who traced the pedigree of countless yuletide objects in her “Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday.” A farmer paid the city a dollar for license to drag a couple of ox carts of wild-cut evergreens from the Catskills to Manhattan.

Other sawyers jumped in, and city folk grew entranced with the yearly appearance of green mini-forests amid the gray curbstones. The scene of a pop-up forest being lighted by the glow of a barrel fire became a holiday tableau. Trees began to be shipped in ever greater numbers on railroad flatcars, and sold not just by sidewalk vendors but by grocers and feed dealers.

By the time of the Depression, Marling wrote, the Christmas tree had become a fixture in most American homes, and a real industry was needed to supply real demand. Sizable operations sprang up in the timberlands of the upper Midwest. New England forests supplied much of the East, though Pennsylvania would emerge as the major producer.

In the 1950s, when American tree growers were cutting millions of trees a year, the highland counties of North Carolina were scrabbling along without a blockbuster commodity. Other conifers were timbered, but the Fraser fir was ignored. It wasn’t even popular as a local Christmas tree.

But there were a few locals who sold Fraser fir saplings in burlap root balls for landscapers, and a few others who cut the tree’s soft boughs each year to make holiday wreaths and garlands. It was they, along with some local extension agents, who began to ponder the Fraser’s broader Yule utility. The tree was nearly ideal: strong branches, soft needles, a star-ready spiky top stem. But, mostly, the Fraser boasts a set of stomata, small respiratory holes on its needles that snap shut within unusual efficiency when the tree is cut. It seems to be an adaptation to its wet, foggy habitat, but the commercial implication is that Fraser needles don’t dry out for weeks and weeks.

“That has been just incredibly important, especially now that Christmas seems to start the day after Halloween,” says Jill Sidebottom, an extension specialist at North Carolina State University. “Now people want their tree to last for five or six weeks, not five or six days.”

It took years for a true Fraser boom to build, but Rusty Barr’s father, Wilson, was in early. He started his farm in 1961, soon after his family sold their ladder-back chair factory to a national furniture maker.

“You had to have some money, and you had to have some land, and you had to be able to wait eight to 10 years to realize any profit,” says Wilson Barr, who ended up building the business for decades and still takes a hand in farm operations. But, for the first time, Wilson has decided not to put up a Christmas tree; his wife of 48 years, Linda, died recently.

“I told Rusty I would just enjoy his,” he says. “I guess I’ve had plenty of trees by now.”

* * *

Seven hours after leaving the Barr farm, Brooks’s truck creeps to a hissing halt on Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill. A woman in a blue Frager’s jacket dashes out of the store and waves him to the curbside a few yards on.

“The trees are here!” says Philbrick, the lot manager, as Brooks jumps down from the cab. “We’ve been expecting you.”

It’s an all-hands event at Frager’s as employees appear from lumber, paints, housewares. When the year’s first batch of trees arrives, usually just after Thanksgiving, the staff serves hot chocolate and plays a holiday CD. But this final load of the year is all business.

“No questions! Just move ’em out,” Philbrick calls to the waiting workers.

They line up as Brooks throws wide the doors and Philbrick pores over the invoice. Then, she and a helper lay out the store’s own tags to tie on as the trees come out.

The first off is a massive 14-foot Fraser special-ordered by a Dominican church. Next, the seven- to eight-footers.

Brooks watches from the corner of the building, waiting to get his rig out of the city and rolling home as soon as he can. It will take more than an hour to get all the trees from truck to lot. It’s only 10 minutes before the first tree buyers move in.

Two days later, all the trees are unbound, and the weekend tree seeking is feverish. The rows are crowded with customers, peering and prodding, twirling and shaking. For some, the tree they take home will be the best tree ever. For others, it will blend into the green blur of Christmas memories that hold snapshots of the 20, 40, 60 others that have come before.

And for some, it will be the first.

Nole Garey is a 29-year-old blogger and a newlywed. She and her husband have just moved from a tiny Dupont Circle apartment to a not-quite-so-tiny Capitol Hill rowhouse. Earlier in the day, they had bought their first string of lights. “I’m really excited,” she says. “I want to surround myself with the season.”

“And I just want to make her happy for the holidays,” says the husband, Andrew Whitehead, 28, a Department of Defense staffer with a gray coat and a black beard.

She looks at him. “You don’t want a tree?”

“I do if it makes you happy.”

She turns to a rank of trees leaning along the rail.

“Okay, then. I don’t like a big gigando tree. The smaller one would be good with a star on top, wouldn’t it?”

“We don’t have a star,” Andrew says.

She gives him patient look through her stylish black glasses. “We have to buy one,” she says.

“Oh, right.”

Two little girls squeeze by. They are Nora Butler, 8, and her sister, Aoife (an Irish name pronounced Eee-fa), who is 7. Their 1-year-old brother, Daniel, is at home on 16th Street SE with his mother and an ear infection. Nora leads Aoife to a bench lined with 12-inch dwarf Alberta spruces. “Look, Aoife, this could be our American Girl tree,” she says.

“C’mon, girls,” their father, David, calls in soft brogue from another row, where Philbrick is holding up the Tree and one other Fraser for their consideration.

“That one!” they cry.

* * *

David Butler asks that the first stage of setting up the Tree, mounting it in the stand, occur in private. It’s the most difficult bit, he says, and likely to be punctuated by some not-very-Christmassy language. But 90 minutes later, inside a yellow rowhouse with a little crape myrtle by the front door, he is cheerfully applying the first string of lights as Marilyn Monroe breathes “Santa Baby” from the stereo. The Tree is upright in the green plastic stand and stationed at one side of the narrow living room. Nora is at her father’s heels, asking to help with the lights. Aoife is pulling glass bells from a box on the dining room table.

“Aoife! Aoife!” calls Katie Butler, 39, who teaches music to preschoolers, as she comes down the stairs with young, snuffling Daniel in her arm. “Let me hand you the fragile ones.”

In Ireland, David’s boyhood trees were simpler affairs all around, mounted in buckets filled with stones and decorated with stars of paper and Popsicle sticks. Nothing much store-bought but lots of gold tinsel and lights. His mother still hangs some of those same humble trinkets each year. But even she, with help from her in-laws across the Atlantic, has added more bling to her tree.

“Now she’s got fancy American ornaments from Katie’s mom,” David says, loosening up the lights Nora has used to tourniquet two branches together.

Katie, picking at a tangle of ornament hangers, pauses to look at the green being that will occupy half of her living room for the rest of the year.

“The tree really feels like a member of the family for a couple of weeks, doesn’t it, Davey?”

Nora and Aoife shuttle back and forth between their mother and the Tree, hooking ornaments all around the increasingly crowded lower branches. Each year, the tide line of ornaments climbs higher as little legs grow.

“’Tis a sad day when it comes down,” says David from his stool. He stretches, reaches to the Tree’s tip.

“Ahhhh,” says Katie, looking up. Aoife and Nora stop their rushing. Even Daniel follows his mother’s gaze to the ceiling, just as his father precariously slips the most important ornament into place.

“The star,” Aoife cries.

They’ve had the star longer than they’ve had the kids. It’s a glass-and-metal affair, five points of green and blue and red lighted from within tiny bulbs. David bought it at Macy’s early in the marriage. He still packs it away in the original box, careful of the breakable points and the electric cord. His was always a star family, though Katie grew up with angels.

“I guess I’m kind of a convert to the star now, too,” she says.

David backs down the step-stool as the others turn back to the inventory of ornaments covering the table: angels, paper wreaths, the engraved silver bells Katie’s mother sends to each child.

“She sent me these when I was in college in Vermont,” Katie says, smiling at a black-and-white Christmas cow dangling from her pinched fingers as Nora takes it reverently. “A different one every year.”

Katie tells the little back stories as she dispenses the ornaments to the girls’ eager hands. The wooden Feliz Navidad banner from her year in Madrid. The simple pine cone ball her own sister gave them one year when she was a college student.

There is a certain box, tinfoil-lined, that contains a complete set of faded glass balls. Katie and David bought them at a yard sale in Brooklyn Heights in 1999, their first married Christmas. They bought the tree at a lot across the street from their tiny walk-up.

“Everything was simpler,” Katie says.

“Lugging that tree up two flights of stairs wasn’t simple,” David says.

At that moment, Nora cries: “Look, Daniel’s helping!”

Her brother toddles toward the tree with a metal bell and a determined stare. The bell drops two feet from the tree, and Daniel turns with a satisfied grin.

“It’s his first year helping,” says Nora with delight.

It takes more than an hour to place every ornament. By the end of the evening, with the Pretenders’ version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” playing, Katie has become a Christmas Tree in her own right, with Aoife draped on her back, Daniel yearning into her arms from David’s and Nora tugging at her T-shirt. Her eyes are tired but warm, a young mother contentedly overwhelmed by the demands of family through one of the most sentimental domestic chores of the year.

The family tableau is bathed in the red and green and white shine of the Tree, which is now in full dress. Its four-day transformation — from one of a thousand snow-dusted firs on a windy ridge to the gaudy, gorgeous and solitary sentry of the holiday for this particular living room — is complete.

“It’s the best one ever, don’t you think,” Katie says.

“It’s lovely,” David says.

* * *

Families say it each year: Every tree is the best ever. No tree is ever less. It’s a fantastical algorithm of perpetual just-rightness.

This is the wonder of the Christmas tree. Not that it wears all the mismatched bric-a-brac pulled from the attic year after year. But that it bears so weightlessly a memory in every hand-me-down angel, a glimmer of awe in each drugstore light, a popcorn string of legacies that connects this tree to all those that stood on the hearth rugs of ancestors.

A Christmas tree bristles with as many meanings as it does needles. It’s a livelihood for a farmer, a linchpin for a marriage, a living-room genie for a wide-eyed child. The 14-footer bought for new vaulted ceilings trumpets success, but the faded “Our First Christmas Together” on the chipped glass ball pays homage to humbler days.

Every tree is a monument to the mother who was the executive producer of Christmas and who loved every tree so, even the final tabletop version that blinked wanly by her hospice bed. Each one evokes the grandfather who disavowed all the trouble involved, the cat that drank the tree-stand water, the dog that knocked it over, the sophisticated sister who fought a losing war for all-white lights.

For a few weeks at the end of each striving year, Christmas is a midwinter emotional thaw. The stiff-standing tree in its gleaming epaulettes is a liveried doorman to Christmas itself.

* * *

On Jan. 6, the Butlers’ stockings hang sagging and emptied, untouched since the Christmas morning ransacking. A ribbon stretched along the wall is weighted nearly to the floor with the year’s holiday cards.

“It has to come down today,” David says. He has imported one Irish tradition: The tree must not stay up past the Feast of the Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas. “It’s bad luck otherwise,” he says, fussing with the milk cartons he uses to roll up the lights. “Plus, we need our living room back.”

Cape Verde jazz is on the stereo. The old routines beckon. The house is shedding the season.

“Look what I found,” says Katie, pulling a piece of overlooked Santa candy from a middle branch. She unwraps it, eyeing her daughters playing with American Girl dolls on the couch. “If you two would help, you might find candy, too.”

Nora walks lazily over and tugs on a light strand.

“Now, wait, Nora, Daddy has a system,” Katie says. She takes the lights, then steps back and ponders the Tree, half its ornaments already off and piled on the table. “I’ll really miss the smell. And the lights, especially in the morning.”

Many a day for the last month, Katie and her early rising son had come down in the predawn gloom. Daniel would suck on his sippy cup, she would plug in the Tree, and they would sit and gaze at the glow together.

“Look, I’m juggling fire,” says Nora, bouncing a wad of lighted white lights in her hands.

Slowly, the bells, the sand dollars, the kindergarten art, all the trimmings find their way into the shirt boxes and egg cartons. The Brooklyn balls are in their case and will be there for another 11 months. The lot of it will soon back in hibernation in a self-storage unit in New Carrollton. The Tree has shed its radiance. It stands nearly bare, stiff and a little spent.

And then it gives up a final secret.

“What’s that?” asks Aoife, peering into the depths of the tree.

David and Nora come over, looking over her shoulder. David reaches in.

“Oooooo,” says Nora, as he pulls out a dry and perfect bird’s nest.

* * *

By the end of the evening, the Tree lies at the curb. It is there for a week, giving up its needles into the thin strip of grass. The wind rolls it a few turns. Dogs sniff it. On the fourth day, a light snow covers it, the last of a lifetime of winter dustings.

Shortly before 11 on the morning of the 13th, a D.C. garbage truck on special duty turns onto 16th Street. It rolls slowly as men in blue coveralls with optic yellow trim lift discarded firs and spruce and white pines from along the curb, some still flashing sunlight from dangling icicles. The trees are lighter now, dried and fading, but two men stoop to heft the Tree together. They carry it to the middle of the street, where the truck has stopped with a hiss and a squeal. They swing it into the orange maw. It lies across the whole opening, still perfect in shape, unmistakable in purpose.

By the end of the week, it would go through a chipper, its particularized self landing on a mulch pile. By spring, it would be on the earth. And in a few moldering months, it would be back in it, part of the world, part of its trees, part of Christmases and families yet to be.

Steve Hendrix is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at hendrixs@washpost.com.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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