Southern Journal: O Christmas Tree

In the spirit of family tradition, I figured the state wouldn't miss one small cedar.
Rick Bragg

The Southern landscape, let's face it, is not intended for Christmas, at least not the storybook Christmas we cut out of red and green construction paper and taped to the windows at Roy Webb Elementary School. Most of the snowflakes I saw, until I left home, were frozen in place on a cardboard sky with Elmer's glue.

I do not love snow–I lived in Boston and New York and came to regard snow as a hard-packed, car-obscuring, finger-numbing, gray and dirty substance–but it was nice at Christmas till the snowplow came along and shoved it over the top of your Subaru. Down here, I ride the highways and gaze out on the grass that has finally, grudgingly gone dormant, as the voices on the radio–Bing, Elvis, and them–try to assure me that it is indeed a time of white Christmas, and roasting chestnuts, and sleighs. And then a big ol' boy in a tank top and a Santy hat waves at me from his mailbox, and I am more confused.

That's when I see it, there at the side of the road: a single, perfectly shaped cedar or pine, not too short, not too tall, and I think, for just a second, that I wish I had a saw. And I know that, for me and mine, it is truly Christmas, after all.

There is no nice way to say it. We are Christmas tree thieves, or used to be (though I am not ruling it out if I see just the right one outside a rest stop near Tupelo). I know that larceny has no place during Yuletide, and before you think badly of me, let me explain. It is not like we were rustling sheep from the manger scene in front of the city auditorium, or absconding with the Three Wise Men, which I think would be hard to pawn anyway. It was just trees. And in that we had scruples. We were not skulking through the lot at The Home Depot at three o'clock in the morning, or robbing a Douglas fir from the Knights of Columbus. It was just that we were less than particular about property lines.

When I was a child, we never bought a tree. We got an ax, or a handsaw, and went into the woods. It would have been a scene straight off a Christmas card, if we had actually gone hunting for one on our own land, which we did not have. I guess it was poaching in a way, but it seemed harmless. In the deep woods, it was more like we were just thinning the herd, rather than stealing.

And, I doubt if a landowner ever walked up to a stump and said, "I'll see them Bragg boys swing for this." But we knew, my brothers and I, that there was something wrong about it. So we decided to steal them from the State of Alabama. We would cruise the bigger roads and highways until we saw one on the state right-of-way. Sliding to a halt in the loose gravel, car tires smoking, I would leap from the truck with my ax. Three to six whacks would do it, unless I saw a car coming. Then I froze, trying to look innocent–with an ax in my hands.

That was a long time ago. I have not stolen a tree, from Alabama or anywhere else, for 35 years. We buy our trees now, and pay what feels like $900 for a tree cut last Fourth of July, a tree I am afraid to shake too hard, lest it look like something Charlie Brown would have. You got a much better quality of tree, when it was stole.

But I am too old and stiff now, too fat to jump a ditch or climb a bank. The police would get me, sure, and my wife would not come and bail me out until after New Year's, perhaps Easter. Still, I see them there, at the side of the road in that balmy air, and it makes me happy.

I guess, to be truthful, those stuck-on paper snowflakes did, too.