Christmas 2004 felt as awkward as it looked, at least from my perspective. Six months into a life-changing move to South Carolina, I was still struggling to gain footing in a humid, flat jungle far, far from the cooler, mountainous Pacific Northwest I had known my entire life.
My husband had a new job, our oldest son attended a new school with new peers, I had a new baby and all of us were faced with celebrating the holidays in a new environment. And toughest of all, we couldn't find a Christmas tree.
Christmas tree procurement has always been a sacred ritual. Led by my father, a forester, the annual tramp through snowy forests of Snoqualmie Pass near Seattle was an event that meant the season had officially arrived.
Before I could walk and long into my young adult years, my parents and a collective of friends we never saw any other time of year would gather at the Crystal Springs campground picnic shelter. Dad would build a fire, and mom would set a kettle of water over the cooktop for cocoa and her famous hot-buttered rums served in Santa Claus mugs. We kids would tumble around in the snow until baskets of popcorn and cookies appeared on the picnic tables, then we'd shed mittens and stuff ourselves with treats, always keeping one eye on my father, waiting for the unspoken signal.
Finally, Dad would pull on his foul-weather gear, lace up his logging boots and retrieve the bow saw from its spot out of our reach.
"Should we go?" he always asked, and a scramble began to be the first to follow his tracks through the deep snow.
Some years tree-hunting came easy as the perfect Douglas or sub-alpine fir showed itself right away in a blaze of implied glory. Other years we really had to search, sometimes settling for what my father called "an almost just-right one." But always, we found a tree. Double top? That's character. Too tall? Easily solved; we'd make swags for the front door.
"Make sure there's room to see the ornaments," was Dad's mantra. He hated the machine-sheared, branch-crowded trees at local Christmas tree lots.
When I got married and lived 100 miles west of my childhood home, my new family and I made sure to participate in the annual event, come what may. But in 2004, South Carolina was a bit too far, and even more expensive, to return home. And I was lost.
Christmas drew nearer on the calendar. I sent cards, made cookies, put up a few lights on the palmetto tree out front. But no tree graced our home. Yet.
The doorbell rang one afternoon as I was hanging up holiday photos from good friends back home. My son and I reached the door at the same time, just as a Federal Express delivery driver finished leaning a large rectangular box against the house.
"Oh, hi, ma'am," he said quickly. "I was hoping someone would be home, because the notes say this box is leaking."
Leaking? I scribbled my name on the driver's notepad without looking at the return address, thanked the man, and with my son's help, hauled the box out to our back porch, where leaking things should go.
"It's from Grandpa!" my son shouted, clawing at the box's top, which popped open to reveal a plastic bag fogged with condensation and the unmistakable scent of Christmas.
A tree. My father had sent his missing family a Christmas tree, which as we gently pulled from the box became a perfectly-formed, five-foot Abies grandis, or Grand fir. Its needles were dark and flat, its branches level and even, and the tiny tip was a spire pointing straight to heaven itself.
We looked at each other, grinning, slightly tearful, and ran to the phone.
"It got there? Oh, good," my father said when we reached him. "I wasn't sure it would work, but I figured you'd want it anyhow."
Indeed we did, if for no other reason than a few moments of cool mountain air and the sharp smells of trees and snow. Of being wrapped in home and family 3,000 miles away.
Holiday visitors to the house commented on the tree, saying how nice it smelled and what a lovely shape it retained after its long journey east. My infant son grabbed a branch now and then, and the dog slept under the last whorl of branches, near the lighted parts.
That little fir stood tall in its stand through New Year's Day, when we paraded it out to the backyard in a jacket of popcorn and cranberry strings for the birds. When finally it dried out by February, I cut it up for campsite firewood to make it last as long as possible and, possibly, complete the circle back to those winter campfires of so many years ago.
Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebooks and publishes AKontheGO.com, a family travel and outdoor recreation website.