The Edwards tradition of cutting a white pine from their own Northwest wood lots for a Christmas tree goes back to the time Christmas trees first became popular among East Hampton’s old-fashioned Presbyterians.
And so it was in the 1960s and ’70s when we followed Jeannette Edwards Rattray, my mother-in-law, into the woods to get ours. She would also take home clumps of different mosses and winterberries, with their glossy leaves and small red berries, to build a miniature landscape scene in a big bowl: moss for grass, tiny wooden farm animals standing under the branches of the berry-laden tree. I don’t know if this was a local tradition or if it was a family invention, but I loved it, and for years would do the same thing, adding bits of other small plants or perhaps burying a pocket mirror (standing in for a pond) to complete the storybook tableau.
As might be expected, our forays into the woods weren’t always as full of holiday cheer as we might have liked. One or the other of the kids would object, strongly, to the tree the others wanted and make a fuss until we gave in and conceded to choosing another; then the process would be repeated until everyone was in a foul temper, stamping around under the green canopy, crunching deeper and deeper into the woods to find the perfect one. Our inability to come to agreement may be the reason why we always chose an extra, little tree for the children’s teddy bears. I still tell myself each December that I am going to have a bear tree, but I usually don’t.
White pines are delicate. Their branches get dragged down by even moderately heavy ornaments, and the finished, fully ornamented and lighted product is, depending on your point of view, either a tree some woodland fairies might dance around or one you would expect to see on the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Sometimes the children’s friends would laugh at the sight.
One Christmastime in the ’70s we had cut our tree and gathered everything up and were heading home on a road that was still paved in dirt and devoid of houses when a friend, who was buying and selling real estate at the time, came along in his own vehicle in the other direction. We were satisfied with our haul and feeling pretty merry.
Ev rolled down the window of his big, green International Travelall truck. “What are you doing in our woods?” he shouted, knowing our friend would take it as a joke. The friend’s two-word response was a loud, “Whose woods?” This answer had the ring of a portent — funny because it was already kind of true, then — so imagine how it resounds now, in retrospect?
We don’t own any wood lots anymore, or any house lots in Northwest either, unfortunately. But I must confess that in recent years, we have held onto the tradition by surreptitiously finding places on public property or roadside byways that have overcrowded stands of white pines, cutting one, and scurrying away, hearts pounding.
Frankly, I can’t believe I am admitting this in print. But I hope that if any of you readers catch us in the act, you will be forgiving, and let us go, if only for sentimentality’s sake.