A couple days after New Years, we dismantled our Christmas tree, returned it to its box, and shoved the box to the back of a shelf in the garage for another year. Other than my sister’s star, the decorations this year were the pre-strung LED lights.
A week to ten days before Christmas during the years we lived in the O’Connor house, Dad would go into the second-growth timber on our place or surrounding logged-over areas to cut our Christmas tree. If the weather was half-decent, we kids would go with him. Sometimes, he took the car or the truck; otherwise we’d try to keep up with his long strides.
Dad always cut a Pacific Silver Fir, known botanically as an Abies amabilis, that he had seen earlier in the year. He frequently felled a 20-25 foot tall tree to get an 8-9 foot top shaped to his liking. This species was common where the old-growth timber had been logged during the first decade of the 20th century. Their lustrous green flat needles with silvery white undersides stood out among the darker foliages. They dramatically reflected flickering candlelight and flaming fireplace logs.
As time passes and those who remember civilian life during World War II become fewer, I feel compelled to tell the backstory to “Our Silver Fir Tree.”
Just before the war, Mom obtained a dozen candleholders and as many candles. I remember her carefully clipping the holders to the limbs, melting the ends of the candles as she inserted them so they would hold tight. She lit them very few times each year, and then for only a few minutes. She didn’t know when, or if, replacements would be available.
Great care was taken with the placement and security of the lighted candles. One errant flame and the tree would have exploded. The pail of water sitting near the tree would have done little to suppress the exploding the pitch-laden needles and bark before enveloping the cedar log and frame construction of our house. The nearest water was hand-drawn by a pitcher pump from a well, a-quarter-mile away.
My sister, with Mom’s help, cut out a star and covered it with “tin foil,” the vernacular for aluminum foil, when she was six or seven years old. (Where Mom found enough foil, I never asked.)
The lamp was an Aladdin Lamp that burned kerosene, and lit the room with a glowing mantle.
We were under “black-out” orders for fear that Japanese planes could find their way up the Skagit River to the hydroelectric dam generating power for Seattle aircraft and shipbuilding industries.
Even during the deepest years of the war, the students in Rockport School put on a Christmas program in the community gym. The highlight was Santa Claus entering from the kitchen with a sack of stockings stuffed with hard candy, sticky popcorn balls and, in some years, a tangerine orange. Since this was always the last event of the evening, most of the contents usually went home. In our case, they helped fill our Christmas stockings hanging from the fireplace mantel.
Our vacuum tube radio was powered with dry cell batteries. Reception was always iffy, and like the candles, batteries were extremely rare.
“Our Silver Fir Tree” was published as “Joy to Our World” in Tough Guys Don’t Give Up (Mary Gillilan, ed. 1996).
Our Silver Fir Tree
Light candles on our silver fir tree,
fill this room with dancing flames,
let them radiate their Christmas spirit
upon Sally, Loretta, Jim and me.
Turn down the lamp,
the hearth-fire burns low.
A pail of water guards
the candle-trimmed tree.
Blanket the windows,
keep the war away.
Light our world tonight.
Tell us the story of the cardboard star
tangled in angel-hair and crumpled foil,
of paper chains and shimmering balls,
of a Christ Child who cast out fear.
Fill our stockings, draped from the mantel,
with oranges and home-made treats.
We’ll pretend the candy from school
will came with Santa in the night.
Turn on the radio, drain its reserve.
With our young voices, we’ll sing
of hope, comfort, and peace,
as lighted candles shine
from our silver fir tree.
World War II