Taming of the Christmas Tree, the Proud and Mischievous Creature
by Leena Likitalo
"We'd bring the Christmas tree in the night before," Gramma said as the children and adults alike gathered for dinner. She loved filling every nook and corner of her farmhouse with tales from the years past and traditions forgotten by most. "But the preparations would have started already the spring before."
My cousins and I giggled as we passed the wooden bowls around. The sweet steam of the rice porridge made us all salivate. I treasured each milk-swollen, butter-coated grain on my tongue as if it were a pearl.
"My sisters and I would visit the forest at the spring equinox when the snow banks were still knee-deep, but the sun had already melted the crisp top layer. We'd wade around the copse and ask riddles of the young spruces. They'd entertain us with answers, each sillier than the previous. It would often take us a full day to find a tree with a tall, straight back and thick branches, but with enough wit to chase away goblins come to steal our presents. The spruces knew this and would stop bantering only after we'd tied a scarlet ribbon around the chosen tree."
Gramma always paused and resumed her stories at the right place. When Ma left the table to take away the empty kettle, Gramma switched the topic to weather. When Ma returned with the rye bread laced with dark syrup, rich white cheese, and jam made of the cloud berries, Gramma glanced at my cousins and me, as if to ask whether to continue. We would nod in chorus.
"The day before Christmas, my father and brothers would ski to the forest to claim the chosen spruce. In exchange, they'd leave a cup of mulled wine and a bag of sea salt for the forest spirits. But even so soothed, only a fool would try to take a spruce down on his own. Mind you, they're not mean, only spirited and mischievous, and you'll do well to watch out for their thick, long needles. Once, my brother Paul got a needle in his eye, and he had to wear an eye patch for a full month. We called him pirate."
My father coughed in his fist, hinting that we should gather away the porridge bowls and bread plates. I helped Ma set the table for the main course. My youngest cousins played on the stairs leading upstairs, trying to resist the temptation of drifting to the gifts guarded by our Christmas tree. Perhaps the next bit of the story was my reward for obedience.
"Come Christmas Eve, we'd bring the spruce in through the back door. And he would never come in without a fight. Oh my, the scuttle and rush. The tree would toss branches every which way. Scatter snow and needles everywhere. You had to be cunning, lest the tree smear resin all over your clothing, and let me tell you, you could rinse and rinse but never quite get everything off."
I still remember the fondness in Gramma's voice. Her gray gaze bright, the scent of spruce needles mixing with her perfume. Midsummer roses blooming through white nights.
"Pa would lay on the floor, waiting, the ancient cast-iron spruce stand ready. My brothers would steer in the struggling tree. As the youngest, Paul would wait upstairs--oh yes, I can see your cousins spying on us from there--likewise hiding behind the banister, but with his reindeer lasso ready."
We all returned to the table for the main course, though my cousins protested, since they found the wrapped gifts more enticing than the feast to come. Laughing gently at them, my father carved the elk roast into thin slices. We passed around the juniper berry gravy, creamy potato casserole, and rosolli salad.