Down East 2013 ©
Christmas comes at a time when winter is still new in Maine. Spirits are high, the first snowfall has come and gone, and winter scenes on the holiday cards that arrive in our mail echo the landscapes outside our doors. We line them up on the mantel, like local postcards.
Perhaps because of the spell cast by the season this far north, our family has always wanted to stay in Maine over the holidays, though for a long time I had trouble explaining this to my mother, for whom Christmas meant a gathering of the clan in Connecticut. My husband and I moved to Maine right after we married, and by our fourth year here, Maine was home, and home was where I wanted to be for Christmas.
A few days before Christmas that fourth year, we attended my brother’s wedding in New York City and then, on Christmas Eve, rushed back to Maine just ahead of a blizzard making its way up the East Coast. We made it back to the house we were renting in Fairfield Center as dusk was falling, in time to grab a hatchet, strap on our cross-country skis, and make tracks through the snowy meadow behind the house. There, at the meadow’s edge, a few paltry evergreens, barely four feet high, had seeded themselves next to the woods. Looking back through the falling snow, we could just glimpse a red caboose. The owner of the house, a railway fanatic, had it brought down from Canada, then trucked from Oakland, and set down on regulation track in the backyard. We cut our tree, dragged it back to the house, and, that night, after supper, built a fire in the fireplace and decorated the little tree with the few ornaments we owned. Then, while the storm raged outside, we exchanged presents by the fire. It was quite perfect.
After that year we lived in town, and for a few winters we put on our heavy boots and tromped through the snowy woods on a farm belonging to one of my husband’s colleagues to cut down our tree. But after our children were born, we gave up the search in the woods. Our “natural” trees were inevitably oddly shaped and thin, the branches wildly spaced. The final effect as the tree stood decorated in a corner of the living room was uncomfortably close to Charlie Brown’s scraggly tree. Also — perhaps as a metaphor for what happens in family life — we’d acquired too many ornaments. My mother, finally reconciled to our Maine Christmases, began passing on to us ornaments that had decorated her own childhood trees — delicate painted birds with feathery tails, long glass icicles that came from her own grandmother, a red drum and a silver snake from her father, the son of German immigrants. These ornaments needed a sturdier setting.
So, with our children, we began frequenting the Christmas tree lots that spring up in central Maine towns after Thanksgiving. We searched for our evergreen outside a former mill along the Kennebec River, at the Agway in Winslow, next to Oakland’s fire station, near a used car lot on College Avenue. At each one, Christmas lights, hung on wires and poles, winked cheerfully, and, as we tumbled out of our car, the sellers would emerge from the inevitable trailer, rubbing their hands against the cold. We’d wander through the narrow pathways between the trees, each marked with a brightly colored ribbon, until we found one we liked, then take it home to decorate.
After Christmas, the job of taking down the tree fell — still falls — to me. The house is quiet, and the ornaments become like Proust’s petite madeleine, evoking memories of all our years in Maine. Into the boxes go a red barn from the year we lived in an old farmhouse in Winslow, two silver lighthouses, a weathered lobster trap (with a red lobster and holly), and twelve carved and painted birds from the Colby Crafts Fair. From a top branch I remove a tiny bucket of blueberries and a wooden moose, then, lower down, a black and white loon made from a painted gourd.
Once the tree is bare, my husband and I drag it outside and lean it against a snowbank by the road to share the fate of all the other discarded trees in our neighborhood. It’s hard to remember their previous splendor.
Like most of our neighbors in Maine, though, we leave the Christmas wreath on our front door until the snow begins melting in earnest in late March. Winter is long in northern New England; we need to keep at least one lingering image of the brightness of Christmas past.