About a week or two into December, my dad would cut down a cedar tree on our farm that he would’ve been eyeballin’ for a few months as a potential tree for our Christmas. It was exciting when he would bring the tree inside. I don’t recall having any concerns about the looks of the tree. I was focused on what toys I wanted for Christmas, so my evaluation of holiday foliage/shrubbery was not very discriminating at that point.
I do remember that it always smelled WONDERFUL—it was the smell of Christmas in the house! You just can’t beat the scent of a cedar tree. But, looking back in my mind (and at photos of conclusive evidence as pictured with this post), the tree was more of a brownish, only slightly green, misshaped scrub-of-a-thing that would prick your fingers and make ‘em bleed when trying to hang ornaments. I preferred being the one to throw globs of silver tinsel on the tree instead. It was fun to do and averted the pain. Back then I thought the tinsel elevated the tree to a shining and shimmering gift in itself! (Again though, photographic proof shows a pathetic attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear...we also raised pigs, so I do have an idea what I’m talking about.)
Photo 1: Sally (the youngest), wielding the axe, and her family with one of the cedar Christmas trees that her father cut down from their farm property. This photo was used for a family Christmas card in the early 1970s. / Photo 2: You can almost smell the evergreen scent of the cedar tree with its tinsel sparkle as Sally beams on Christmas morning with her new red bicylce and Tippy Toes doll (on the handlebars).
Anyway, there that tinsel-ladened tree would stand kind of cock-eyed in our living room, getting more brown and dry each day. Even so, it would always stay up until New Year’s Day morning when the first thing on my mom’s list was to UN-decorate it and then call my siblings and me to help her get it out of the house quickly before it could drop every dry needle on the floor. Then it was on to the rusty barrel by the barn where we burned our trash.
The infamous burn barrel on the family farm where the cedar Christmas tree would be incinerated each year and Sally's mother would share her prophetic warning to her children about the dangers of fire.
The tree would be placed upright in the barrel and Mom would wait until we would encircle this final resting spot of the symbol of our holiday. The ritual was nearing its climax. She wanted us to see that tree BURN!
Each year before she struck the match, she would give a short yet fairly dramatic speech that Smokey Bear would have been pleased to hear. (In fact, it was this annual occasion that sparked my interest in mailing off an application to be an official Smokey Bear junior forest ranger, complete with badge and papers. I wore that badge proudly for at least the next several months.)
Mom’s speech went something like this: “Now, I want all you kids to see how quickly this tree will burn and how dangerous it is and to know it could have burned down our house in minutes with all of us in it.” This pronouncement always gave me goosebumps, and then when she lit the match, her prophecy could be envisioned as that tree was engulfed and consumed within seconds! Each of us at our first couple of annual burnings would be wide-eyed and think: “Why in the world do we bring a dangerous thing like that in the house in the first place?!” As years went by, it got to be a tradition that we grew tired of—not so much the spectacular inferno from the trash can, rather Mom’s well-intended but predictable speech.
By the time my brother Stuart was in senior high and I was in junior high, we thought Mom had made her point and told her so and did we really need the speech again? Apparently, she thought we did.
Stuart and I will never forget the last time that the annual burning of the tree included Mom’s speech.
That New Year’s Day morning when she proclaimed it to be time to gather around the barrel to bid adieu to that Christmas tree, that looked like an overgrown tumbleweed, we were just not up for it. Practically in unison, we both lamented: “We know, Mom; it’s a dangerous thing and can burn up in seconds and could kill our whole family and so we need to be careful....” Even though that was indeed the message she wanted to get across in a serious manner, she did look a tad bit amused at our sing-song-y, lesson-already-learned retort.
Nevertheless, she commenced to turn her attention to the tree and quickly ran the match across the side of the barrel. Not to disappoint, the tree went ablaze, and the smoke went straight up to the heavens! Mom turned around to provide her concluding remarks, something along the lines of “once again, in a matter of seconds that fire could have not only burned up our tree but burned down our house as well....”
While it was always an impressive sight, this year topped them all! We didn’t hear anything she said. My mouth went agape as I froze in wonder—wondering what to do. Stuart was more composed and ready to take action after saying, “Yes, Mom. But your hair is on fire.”
He stepped forward to slap (not too hard) his glove on her forehead as her hair had started to singe, swiftly sizzling up the strands and heading for her scalp. Fortunately, her skin didn’t get burned, and when we all realized she was okay, she was the first to laugh. As we headed back to the house, we knew that this was perhaps a fitting finale for the Lesson at the Barrel.
It remained a moment seared (sorry) into our memories that we would oft bring up, and the three of us--along with anyone in earshot--would remember with snickers to snorts.
It had been a bonus lesson learned that final year at the barrel—the year when Mom lost her bangs.
Sally Troutman Boyd hails from Ethel, Mo., and is proud of her small town roots – even pleased that her hometown’s name gets a chuckle and becomes a conversation starter. Despite living in St. Louis for the past 30+ years, much of her remembrances and writings come from growing up on a farm in the '60s and '70s. The majority of her career has been in nonprofit fundraising for individuals with developmental disabilities.