In my early days of writing this column, around this time of year I used to feature tales of local residents facing abject misery during their annual tree hunts. Frozen fingers and toes, wailing children, Christmas trees so bedraggled that even Charlie Brown might have turned up his nose at them. Everyone who had ever cut a Christmas tree with small children in tow could relate, some even remembering these tortuous excursions with a kind of nostalgia — memories rendered joyful by the passage of time.
In recent years, however, people seem to be having uniformly Instagram-worthy Christmas tree outings: the whole family in matching plaid shirts, picture-perfect trees, steaming mugs of cocoa, laughing all the way. The tree expeditions of the modern crowd are all so Martha Stewart that I let my epic Christmas tree hunt theme slip away.
I didn’t, however, let go of the premise that this practice — this somewhat wacky ritual of cutting a live tree and parking it in your living room for a couple of weeks — is one that can be fraught not only with mishap, but also with meaning.
A week or two ago, on the day that our family had planned to cut our own tree, it turned out that I was the only member of the household available to take part in this momentous annual tradition. So I decided to go cut the tree myself.
For some reason this felt daunting — going alone on a Christmas tree hunt. But as I peeled away the layers of my discomfort, I realized that the basis for my reluctance was flimsy. Being alone in the woods didn’t scare me, and neither did using the saw. I knew I could cut a tree small enough to lift onto the car by myself, and that I could select a tree lush enough to be respectable, yet spare enough to showcase ornaments.
No, what really bothered me was what others might think of the fact that I went alone on an occasion so beset with an expectation of family togetherness. What would people think of me, of our family? Having identified the cause of my unease, I filed it away deep in a new mental storage space I have designated specifically for such trifling matters.
Armed with a saw and a sheepish awareness of my own petty hang-ups, I drove out of town, parked, and walked into the forest. The woods were lovely — not dark and deep at all, but bright and sparkly. Sunlight glittered off snow crystals all around me, a rippling blanket of snow stretched deeper into the forest, pocked with tiny mammal tracks, and small evergreens bowed under the weight of the previous day’s snowfall.
I wandered until I happened upon a glade of trees the right size for my house. Then were bent almost to the ground with heavy snow, but sprang back up straight once I released the branches from their load. I cut my tree, which made only a soft whooshing sound as it fell, sending a spray of snow up into the air like a flash of shimmering confetti. Afterwards, I sat for a while on a log, enjoying the dazzling stillness of the woods, relishing these few moments of solitude. A traitorous thought crossed my mind: I should do this more often.
I realized only then what a privilege it was to enjoy time alone, and to be grateful for the opportunity to cut a tree alone, and to be able to take this tree home to a loving and bustling household. I remembered that not everyone is surrounded by family and close friends, that not everyone views alone time as a luxury, especially during the holidays. For me, savoring a rare few moments with my own thoughts is a treat; for others, that alone time accumulates, swells, and accentuates an underlying loneliness.
The line between aloneness and loneliness is both fluid and relative, and what is a gift for some is a chronic burden for others — a weight that the rest of us can help bear. Like the trees in the forest whose full beauty can only be seen when relieved of their load, we all stand up taller and fuller with someone else around to help us shed our burdens.