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Taming of the Christmas Tree, the Proud and Mischievous Creature

Leena Likitalo hails from Finland, the land of thousands of lakes and at least as many untold tales. She is a Writers of the Future 2014 winner and Clarion San Diego graduate. Her fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Galaxy's Edge, and various semi-pro markets.

"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.
"Sensing that something was about to happen, the Christmas tree would halt in the hall, tense like a reindeer who has smelled a bear. But that was the moment Paul had been waiting for, and he'd spring up from behind the banister and toss his lasso. The tree would bolt, but Paul's aim was always true. When Paul hauled in the tree, Pa would snap the stand around the tree's foot. Oh, the tree would sway about, swishing his thick branches like a chicken trying to fly. But cold steel tames even the wildest tree."
At this point, the roasted elk was all gone and our bellies so full that they might as well burst from the mere thought of dessert. My father loosened his belt with a burp and laughter filled the house.
"One has to respect a Christmas tree and give him a night to get accustomed to new surroundings. Hence, after securing the tree in its place, Pa would turn off the lights and chase us kids into bed. I could never sleep for the excitement, but would toss and turn as the tree grumbled through the night."
Prompted to do so by our parents, my cousins and I fetched the gingerbreads we'd decorated earlier and showcased them. Reindeer and hearts and gingerbread people with fine coats of dusting sugar. Ma poured us steaming blackberry juice, spiced with cinnamon, clove, and cardamom. Gramma offered us chocolate candies covered in shiny, rustling wrappers.
"Come morning, my sisters and I would sneak out of bed early. We'd spy the Christmas tree from the stairway, hesitant to approach him. But the tree would only snort at us, amused."
But even Gramma's story couldn't distract my cousins' attention from the gifts. They shifted in their chairs as if they had urgent business in the outhouse. Gramma paused and glanced at the Christmas tree. And I could swear that it wasn't the candles flickering amidst the branches nor the glitter of the decorations that drew my eye....
"Basking in the warmth of our house, the tree would beckon us closer, and from that we knew him tame. My sisters and I would decorate him with wreaths spun of candy wrappers. We'd untangle the red yarn woven around the straw goats and goblins, and stand on our toes to hang the chain. On top of the tree, we would tie a golden star."
I got up then, but not because my cousins had already done so. For the Christmas tree waved a branch at me, the straw goats galloping in the wake of the movement. Thus summoned, I drifted to the tree and brushed the lush green needles gently.
The spruce purred back at me, happy as a well-fed cat.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 18th, 2015

Author Comments

My parents-in-law take Christmas seriously. There's always five different sorts of homemade jam, and pies and bread fresh out of the oven. There's pickled Baltic herrings, salads, and soft, white cheese that melts on your tongue. And then there is the Christmas tree.

My mother-in-law grows the Christmas trees in her backyard. Mind you, the garden is not that big to begin with, and the trees take decades to reach the appropriate mightiness. As you might guess, taking one down and bringing it into the house is no small task.

Last Christmas, I was writing in the living room, safely out of the way, as my husband and father-in-law brought in the chosen Christmas tree. The tree swung frozen branches, scattering needless everywhere. My mother-in-law waited with a rope, ready to balance the tree against the stairs. This is starting to sound terribly familiar, right?

Most of the stuff in this story is made-up, but some of it is 100% true, Finnish Christmas tradition. Which parts, I won't tell, but I wish that all your Christmas trees will be ever well-behaved!

- Leena Likitalo
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