Seeking that perfect symbol of Christmas

The Cariboo Christmas Tree

Barbara Roden tells how a box full of Oregon Jack wilderness made its way to Ottawa.

Christmas is many things to many people, but few would disagree that traditions loom larger at Christmas than at any other time of the year. Almost everyone who celebrates the season will have traditions of their own, and some will revolve around that humble yet graceful symbol, the Christmas tree. This true tale tells of one such small tradition.

It goes back many years, to when there were four young men; we shall call them Bill, Paul, Al, and Pat. All four were married; three had young families; all knew each other through the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Vancouver. Paul had long loved the area up Oregon Jack Valley near Ashcroft, and had bought land there; later he had bought another parcel, along with Al and Pat. The men, and their families, made a habit of visiting the area several times each summer, living rough (at least compared with their city lives) in cabins that depended on wood stoves for their heat and cooking, kerosene lanterns for their light, and local streams for their running water.

Long walks through the woods were staples of these visits. Sometimes the children would accompany them, keeping wary eyes open for bears and cougars and that dread figure of many a tall tale told round the campfire, Split-tooth the Grizzly; but the men were more apt to be casting appraising glances at any stands of Douglas fir they passed. One of the men would have some flagging tape with him, and every now and then the group would stop and size up this or that tree, muttering cryptic phrases such as “too scrawny” or “a bit bare”. When a tree passed muster it would be marked with a tag of tape, the ends hanging down over the smooth bark, fluttering occasionally in the light summer winds.

Next time the men saw these trees, the wind would no longer be hot, but a piercing, lung-filling cold, dry as the desert. The sounds and smells of summer would be gone too, replaced by a silence so immense the smallest noise seemed to take on huge import. Even though it was still early in November, the snow would lie deep and crisp and even, and the trees would be covered in white blankets. But the men – who had driven up from the coast early that day –  knew which trees they wanted, calling as they spotted the brave bright strands of orange. Out would come saws, and then twine, the trees trussed to avoid damaging the branches as they were pulled across the snow to the waiting cars, then loaded in, to speed their way back to the coast and the joyous cries of the children, who would know that Christmas was one step closer.

It was in 1973 that the tradition changed slightly, when Bill – who then wore the red serge of the Royal Canadian Mounted – was transferred to Victoria. He was able to get back over to the coast that fall, and an Oregon Jack Christmas tree made its way to the suburbs of the Saanich Peninsula. But the following year – ah, that was a very different story indeed. For the Christmas of 1974 saw Bill and his family moving to Ottawa; far too far away for a Christmas tree from the Cariboo. Of course there would be Christmas trees in Ottawa; of course. But they would not be the same, somehow. The tradition had ended.

At least that first year there would be no need to worry about a tree. Plans were afoot for Christmas in Toronto, at Bill’s parents’ house. All the aunts and uncles and cousins would be there, spilling into and around the old farmhouse on Prince Edward Drive, and Grandma and Grandpa had promised there would be a tree, hand-picked by Grandpa from the finest Christmas tree lot Toronto had to offer. If the children thought that no Toronto tree could possibly compare with the ones they had known – those beautiful trees from Cornwall Mountain, up which squirrels had scampered and on which birds had sought shelter – they said nothing.

And then, one early December day, the postman rang the doorbell of 85 Westpark Drive in Ottawa, a rather puzzled look on his face. “Parcel here for you,” he said, jerking his head towards the truck. “Big box; not too heavy, though. Sign here.”

Big? The box would have held a refrigerator. But it was not a gleaming fridge that was revealed, when the family was all together later that day and the box opened. Nestled in the box was a Douglas fir, which seemed relieved at the chance to stretch and spread itself, filling the house with the scent of sap and needles and – yes, perhaps just a whisper of hot, dry Cariboo air and the skittering of squirrels’ feet. Inside the box was a note: “You weren’t with us, so we picked a tree out for you.”

There was a quick phone call to Toronto soon after. “Don’t get a tree,” said Bill to his father, “we’re bringing one.”

“You don’t have to bring one,” said Grandpa. “Long way to bring a tree, all the way from Ottawa.”

Bill laughed. “This one’s special. And it’s already come a long way. A very long way indeed.”

Did I say that this was a small tradition, that of the Cariboo Christmas tree? It may well be; but the memory of it looms large, casting a warm glow over the decades that separate the story from the telling of it. And the tradition continues, with a Cariboo Christmas tree currently standing in our living-room, bearing many of the same decorations its long-ago forbears displayed. Long may the tradition continue!

Barbara Roden

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