My favorite Christmas tree remains the one that got away.
All these years later, I long for its perfect shape and just-right pine needle scent. Just like the bad boy in high school whose handsome looks and charm were bolstered by the fact that he never became my boyfriend, this particular Christmas tree was one of life's flirty objects that resisted ownership. And, oh, how it broke my heart that winter, my 11-year old self bawling with a conviction reserved for devastating events. How it broke my heart that, even though the tree had been chosen and cut by us and therefore should have been erected in the Ballou home, it never got close to our living room. How it broke my heart the way it splintered and snapped into clumps of green across the half mile from the woods' edge to our barn.
In spite of what seemed like the truncation of a merry holiday season to this 11-year old standing mid-shin in a snowbank, the event did imprint me with a critical lesson. That lesson, gentle reader, was the spooky nature of horses.
In a Ballou tradition involving snowshoes, chainsaws, and a dose of parental bickering, my parents trekked with us into the woods behind our house every year around December 5. A few hours of squabbling later, we reached agreement about which tree to saw down and bring home. We all regarded this selection process seriously, given that it kicked off a season of no-holds-barred merriment and magic in our home.
To get four opinionated people to agree on the best elements of a tree is no quick task. My Dad always wanted to tallest one in the forest, never mind that it wouldn't fit inside the house. My brother wanted trees densely packed with enough branches and needles to hold up our impressive collection of ornaments. My mother, on the other hand, insisted on aesthetic balance and overall visual harmony. For her, the tree needed to be shaped exactly conical with a consistent number of branches (but not too many!) on all sides. Not too bushy, not too lean.
I, meanwhile, preferred the forest's sparse, short, and sickly looking trees probably because I felt sorry for them and wanted to bestow them with some lively joy and happiness that the rest of us felt during Christmas. Selecting a tree required compromise on every one's behalf, but mostly my father's. We never cut down a tree that was satisfactory in height for him. Even if the living room ceiling could have accommodated a 15-footer, the logistics of hauling such a behemoth home on snowshoes with two small kids in tow proved too much.
That particular year, though, my father brainstormed a new plan. Heck, we train horses for a living, he said to my mom. Why not get THEM to do the work? Why not drive Sunny, our best horse, up to the wood's edge with a sleigh and then leave him tied at the fence until we get the tree? Then, we could secure our tree in the sleigh and let Sunny do the hard work of hauling it home. Sunny had done a number of July 4 parades and competitions that involved all kinds of noise, standing around, etc., so he was the best choice for the tree harvest.
It all began quite well. We left Sunny tied to a fence post while we waded deeper into the woods through knee-high snow drifts hunting down our tree. Right on cue, the bickering started. My brother insisted we cut down one of the first trees we came to. I argued that we should wait for a more worthy one, a tree that required more hunting and effort. Then, we remembered Sunny. With a strong steed to carry home our tree this year, we all decided in a moment of selfless Christmas spirit that we should allow Dad to select the tree since his choice got voted down in past years. To this news, my chainsaw-toting father cheered up like a young boy.
Within moments, he found a healthy monster of a yule tree, a 16-foot wonder with an impressive number of branches. We Ballous stood in the cold snow beholding his tree. We each pictured how, once decorated and lit, its deep green needles and symmetry would be the envy of every party-goer at our annual holiday celebration. This was the kind of tree reserved for town squares and magazine covers. Our pride turned into giddiness as Dad fired up the chainsaw. My brother and I begged Mom to decorate it immediately when we got home. Mom, meanwhile, was too speechless by the tree's beauty to reply.
In radical departure from previous years' bickering, we all sang Christmas songs on the way back to Sunny. Dad dragged the tree with a rope harness while my brother and I trudged ahead breaking trail. We walked side by side stamping our feet hard into the snow to clear a path for the tree, so it could slide along smoothly without snagging branches or losing precious needles. It grew cold in the woods as dusk approached, but our reverence for The World's Most Perfect Tree slowed our efforts to a fine-tuned precision. When the trail cornered right or left, all four of us lifted and swung the tree around it methodically, as though this member of the forest just became our family heirloom.
Back at Sunny, we tied the tree into our Cutter sleigh, which had a flat section behind much like a pickup truck. We each secured a designated section of tree in place-- again, taking painstaking effort to preserve needles-- and then unbuckled our snowshoes and put those in the sleigh, too. My Dad checked Sunny's harness connections and then began to take up his reins and climb aboard the sleigh while the rest of us waited beside him.
It was exactly at this moment that my brother, prone to hyperactivity, surged with a jolt of unbridled Christmas spunk that he apparently could not rein in. For reasons we'll never fathom nor forgive, he bolted across the field springing through the snow like a Broadway dancer, yelping something about cookies and cocoa. His mittens flung, his snowsuit flapped, his voice echoed off the frozen tree trunks.
And Sunny freaked out.
This cookie-seeking, snow-bounding bundle of colors terrified him. Before my Dad could throw himself up into the sleigh, Sunny bolted away with our sleigh and tree attached behind him. He ran like a horse tasting freedom for the first time. He ran with no intention of stopping. Our antique sleigh bounced and jumped and split apart. Its curved runners broke into pieces, causing the sleigh to collapse onto its belly and drag across the snow until it, too, split apart one board at a time. I remember its decorative paint flaking off in peels as each board hurled through the air and settled in the snow. By now, our tree looked like green confetti. Its few remaining branches dragged behind Sunny until, arriving back at the barn, they looked like pulp. What we once envisioned as a festive promenade from woods to barn with a magnificent tree in tow now became a half -mile smear of evergreen detritus and antique sleigh splinters.
Sunny returned to the barn unscathed and we found him standing quietly in his stall munching hay, a few tattered pieces of harness hanging from his sides. Somberly, we removed the tack that his runaway had not and brushed him down. I wiped off the bit while Dad picked snow out his hooves. Nobody mentioned the tree. By now, my brother caught up to us. As disappointed as the rest of us, he asked a very legit question, the type of inquiry that repeats again and again for horsemen.
"Hey Dad," he began, "I thought you said Sunny was our BEST horse. If he's the best one, how come he freaked out?" His eyes twinkled a little as he asked, clearly finding humor in the irony that a non-verbal small-brained animal just decimated the well-laid plan of four human beings in the blink of an eye.
And therein lies the question many of us ponder in regards to our steeds. My brother's eyes grew bigger.
"What would the WORST one have done?"