The Christmas Nest

December 8, 2011

 Christmas Nest – Gift of a Lifetime

The unmistakable scent of balsam needles was exotic when I was a kid growing up in a neighborhood of oaks in suburban New Jersey. That “Christmas tree smell” represented a foreign land – a faraway, snowy realm of pointy, fragrant firs I only glimpsed as a cartoon backdrop to the 1960s-era “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Frosty the Snowman” holiday television specials.

Each year, my family chose a Christmas tree from hundreds neatly-racked three and four deep in the parking lot of the local YMCA. I remember exploring the asphalt understory, crawling through fragrant fallen needles beneath that manicured pre-cut forest. In the glow of hanging incandescent bulbs, we excitedly played hide-and-seek beneath the trees, as our exhaled breath steamed and mixed with balsam on a chilly December night.

At home in our living room, warmed by a pressed-sawdust Supermarket “log” burning in the fireplace and with Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole playing on the high-fi, we sipped eggnog and watched dad wrestle the tree upright in the red and green steel stand. We tested strings of colorful lights brought down from the attic while our tree would reanimate – like Frosty – with limbs unfurling for the first time since leaving its native northern forest and it magically “drank” water from a small reservoir in which it was now planted.

One year, I found a bird nest in our tree, a curious relic.

The elegant woven cup of root hairs and grass was lined with moss and downy feathers -- tucked like a miniature wreath into a forked bough of our balsam fir. I lifted the nest from its perch, held it in my hands to admire its architecture and then replaced it exactly where I found it.

It seemed a revelation that our tree was a summer home to a family of wild birds in that distant North Country. What kind of birds? Why had they selected our tree to be so distinguished from among thousands?

The Christmas nest that pre-decorated our tree became a kind of holiday talisman of good tidings. After Christmas, I packed the nest away in the box of holiday ornaments. In subsequent years, I placed it ceremoniously in each new tree. The magic was renewed annually even as the nest itself crumbled.

The year my parents bought an artificial tree the spell was forever broken.

The tradition I’d created couldn’t overcome the insult of a sterile, fire-resistant tree of plastic and steel. Having an artificial tree rendered the little nest obsolete. The nest was real, after all; and the tree, a fake.

My parents sympathized with my pleas about the loss of the balsam smell. But they countered that their new-fangled “tree” was always full and shapely, easy to set-up and take down, never dropped needles and didn’t need water. It also never magically drank any or unfurled its limbs either I pointed out.

Today, I live on a rural NH certified Tree Farm. The forest outside is generally snow-clad before Christmas. Each December, I journey north to that faraway kingdom of pointy trees – a fragrant forest of spruce and fir growing north of the White Mountains. At “The Rocks Christmas Tree Farm” in Bethlehem, I tie Christmas trees to roofs of cars headed south to once-familiar leafy deciduous suburbs. Before sundown, I choose one perfect fresh-cut Christmas tree to take home to my family.

There’s a singular Currier and Ives moment when carrying a fresh, cold Christmas tree into a warm house. The smell of balsam fills the room, kindling childhood memories and nostalgia for childhood innocence. Even sullen teenagers grow sentimental during the family ritual of trimming our tree. Handmade preschool ornaments comprised of popsicle sticks, elbow pasta and glue with names written on the back in crayon hang beside antique painted glass ornaments from grandmother’s collection. These treasures tell our story, our shared family history of recent Christmases and those long past.

Invariably I'll ask my kids if I've ever told the story of my Christmas nest and what it symbolized in a place far more crowded than our family Tree Farm. Yes, they've heard that tale. Now you have too!

            Children can make long-lasting attachments to nature. Subtle encounters can create empathy for life outside a narrow economy of manmade goods and services. In time, a young naturalist’s worldview may become the cornerstone upon which later life experience is built. Many adults attribute their personal connection to nature to a series of formative early experiences. While visiting a forest while attending summer camp or  fishing or catching frogs; building forts in the woods or studying the ants in left field or dandelions growing from cracks in concrete, children always seem to find a window. How long the windows remain open – a moment or a lifetime – is a mystery.

I see the purpose of my Christmas nest. The simple woven cup of roots, grass, feathers and moss was designed to cradle a child’s imagination as much as its clutch of fragile eggs. It was perfect to brood my sense of place as well as its brood of nestlings. The Christmas nest gave flight to the imagination of a fledgling naturalist on the wings of birds who once built it.