He was standing on the lower driveway at the back of the house, hands in his pockets, looking out over the expanse of back yard. Both the knoll and the distant flat land were covered with evergreen trees. At the far end the land turned into the marsh of a beaver swamp.
He was dressed in coarse khaki coveralls. An old jacket soiled from years of physical labor hung from his shoulders; a red faded ball cap rested on his head. He turned to the sound of our feet shuffling on the back porch. We had come as we always do this time of year to tag a tree for Christmas.
My daughter reached for one of the packets in the plastic wash tub. The green paper listed the price of this year’s trees with instructions for tagging your selection in the field. I raised a hand in greeting and pushed back my cap. “I see you’re still in business,” I laughed. “We’ve come to pick out a tree.”
He turned and ambled up the stone steps to the porch. His face looked drawn and gaunt. He accepted my hand in greeting. “Yes,” he said, “although this will be our last year. We’re putting the house up for sale. No guarantee that the new owners will want to continue the backyard Christmas tree business.”
His words caught me up short. We had been getting a tree from him every Christmas for the past 25 years. Although I only saw him twice a year — the day we came to tag a tree and the day we returned to have it cut — I had come to regard him almost as family.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “I suppose everyone has the option to retire at some point.”
He smiled. “Yes, I suppose that’s so. Don’t really want to give it up, but I’m getting on in years. Turned 82 this year, and I can’t handle the work anymore.”
“Where will you go?”
“McLean’s,” he said, naming the local assisted living facility on the other side of the hill. “Gotta face it — age eventually catches up with all of us.”
He turned and looked out over the hillside. “I put my heart and soul into this business. Planted our first trees in 1965 — forty-six years ago. At first I only planted the flat land. Kept the hill open so my kids could go sledding in winter. After they grew up, I planted the slope as well. That’s my youngest son raking down there — he’s 52 now, too old for sledding.”
His son looked up from his work and smiled. “You folks need any help finding a tree?” he asked.
“No, we’re regulars,” I told him. “We’ll fill out the tag and the card and head out to make our selection.”
“Say, could I interest you in a sled?” the old man said. He pointed to three wooden Lighting Gliders leaning up against a table on the porch. “We had a tag sale last week, but these didn’t go. My kids used them when they were small. They still work fine — you can actually steer a sled like these, not like those newfangled plastic jobs that go wherever they’ve a mind to.”
I ran my hand over the steel runners of one of the sleds. The stenciled name had worn off the wood after decades of weathering and use. “How much?” I asked.
“Deal,” I said.
I opened my wallet and fished out a bill. We stood the sled in the shade by the side of the house, and walked past the old man and his son down the slope into the forest of trees to make our final selection.
A tree is just a small part of Christmas, of course; some would say an insignificant part, merely a household decoration that temporarily graces a home as the year draws to a close. Yet it provides a familiar ritual to those who select it and cut it, bind it to the car roof and bring it home, dust the snow from its branches and trim it with decades old ornaments, some of which have been lovingly preserved through several generations, under which the presents appear on Christmas morning, those gifts freely given without regard to merit or standing, tokens of love and grace.