This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 26, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
By now, everybody has read about or watched on one of the news channels the poignant story about the little saw-whet owl that was found in the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree after the bright-eyed, feathered creature traveled 170 miles in the Norway spruce from Oneonta, New York to Manhattan, not able to eat or drink for three days. Although the tiniest of owls, the saw-whet was an adult bird, and released into the wild after being fed and taken care of by the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center. He was appropriately named “Rockefeller.”
Like many other folks, we have been inclined to obtain our Christmas tree on Thanksgiving Day and put it up and decorate it a few days later. For many, many years, it was always what we called a “live” tree (though technically dead since it had been chopped down), not an artificial tree. Some years we even went to a tree farm or to my uncle’s pasture to chop down our own, like my father, my brother, and I would do in the good old days. Appropriate to the owl story, it was finding a creature in the tree that was a big factor in our buying an artificial tree for all future uses. Well, that and a tree falling on top my wife as we tried to put it up, and also being cursed with lop-sided trees. But, for me, the turning point was the snake in the tree.
Yes, the creature in our last “live” tree was a garter snake that must have hidden itself quite carefully. I am afraid of all snakes, and I still shudder at the thought of carrying that tree into the house, placing it into a tree stand, and putting the lights deep within the tree, with this potential viper (who knew it was a harmless garter snake) slithering among the branches. My wife was about half through hanging the ornaments on the tree when she discovered the snake. She, a former biology teacher and wildlife lover, suddenly exclaimed in a sweet voice, “Awwww.” I thought the cat had crawled into the tree, until I saw her walk across the room, put on a pair of gloves, and return to the tree to gently remove the creature, and take him and release him in the yard, — all the time crooning about what a cute little snake he was.
“That’s it!” I exclaimed, still suffering from shock, “no more ‘live’ trees for us!” And we’ve had an artificial tree ever since! Though we might still be putting up “live” trees had the creature been a charming little saw-whet owl.
Before the snake experience, we had never found any living creature in our trees. Whenever we got our tree from the woods in Dime Box, whether when I was a kid or when my daughters were still children, we always found dried oak leaves, twigs, remnants of birds’ nests, mustang grape leaves, and other such things lodged here and there within the tree. Once, unnoticed by us, my brother and I chopped down a tree with poison ivy growing in it, so my father insisted we find another tree.
The trees from Dime Box came from my uncle’s cedar brake, and it’s a little harder for even a small creature to hide in a cedar tree than in a spruce. Though, from the photos of the spruce recently raised up in Rockefeller Center, it looked as skimpy-branched as the average cedar, a fact generating a lot of negative comments about its suitability. Based on my experience watching my father “full out” an anemic cedar, I’m sure the decorated tree will look splendid.
To prepare our cedar tree for the old-fashioned tree stand, Daddy would cut off the bottom branches and save them, as he would later graft them onto the parts of the tree looking like a plucked chicken. My daddy could spruce up a puny cedar tree and make it look as full as a spruce! Of course, the ornaments and the old-timey roping and icicles would hide all flaws in any evergreen tree. He would, however, instruct us not to hang the heavy ornaments on to the grafted limbs.
Switching from “live” to artificial did cut me out of my traditional job of putting strings of lights on the tree, a job traditionally done by my father and by my wife’s father in those childhood years, and then by me. Our artificial tree came with built-in lights, — really a good thing for my family, because I am notorious for my “lop-sided lights look”! Perhaps another reason for switching to an artificial tree. It’s all good now, but I wouldn’t mind having a little owl in our tree.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, and a retired LCMS pastor, and author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.