Friday, December 20, 2019

Christmas Trees I Have Known

Der Christbaum ist der schönste Baum         The Christmas tree is the most beautiful tree
Den wir auf Erden kennen                             That we know on earth.
                                                                                      --Johannes Carl, 1842 

Christmas trees have always been a central part of my family's holiday celebrations. My earliest memories of Christmas morning are of tiptoeing down the cold stairwell (my dad hadn't yet gotten up to stoke the coal-burning furnace) and peeking around the corner into the living room. At the far end in the faint light of dawn was the tree and under it were two or three unwrapped presents brought by Santa. So magical!
Centuries ago, pagans in northern Europe brought evergreen trees inside their homes around the winter solstice. The arrival of winter brings with it a monochromatic landscape, and who doesn't need a bit of color during these dark, cold months?
A "Wilder Mann" pagan tree costume (Photo by Charles Fréger)

The celebration of Jesus's birth around the time of the winter solstice is, as are so many feast days in the church calendar, an assimilation of an already-existing tradition. Shepherds are out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night during the spring lambing season, not in December. And we all know that taxes are due in April.

We have the Germans in the 16th century to thank for making the evergreen tree into the modern Christmas tree.  Hungarian-Austrian composer Franz Liszt called his suite of 12 short pieces, some based on Christmas carols, Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree). The symbolism of the evergreen tree in the context of the Christian Nativity makes perfect sense: light in darkness, life in death.
The choir of First Baptist Church, Edmond, OK, arranged as a Christmas tree

The traditional German Christmas tree is the Tannenbaum, the fragrant fir. My mother insisted that the fir is the only "real" Christmas tree. Sometimes she and I tested my father's patience in our quest for the perfect tree--which definitely wasn't a pine. One particularly grueling search I remember was through the tree lot set up in the Second Ward Schoolyard in Homestead, one block over from the Katilius store. It seemed it took many hours to select a tree as we stamped around with frozen feet in the snowy brick yard, examining one after the other. Eventually we settled on one, but I can't remember a thing about it, except that it was a fir, and perfect.

Opening presents with Mum, 1949. The tree is, of course, an old-fashioned fir.
When I was older, my dad bought an electric train set, a crazy one made of metal cars with a locomotive that had a red light. Around the base of the tree the train went as I manually switched it to take the one alternate track, then back to the main track. [When I cleaned out the Minneapolis house, I was delighted to find a little girl who had asked for a train for Christmas. Her parents got my old train and set it up under the tree to surprise her Christmas morning. And it still worked.]
Our cocker spaniel Watson is disappointed that there's no train to chase under the tree (1980s).

One year disaster struck when my cocker spaniel Buffy arrived on the scene and pounced on the train as it circled the tree. Crash, down came the tree, breaking a number of ornaments. One of these was "Happy Hooligan", an Edwardian cartoon character that Dad was particularly fond of. My dad had saved several ornaments from his childhood pre-World War I, and after the second tree felling, all but one of these had been broken. The lone survivor was the Liberty Bell, which hangs on my tree today.
Liberty Bell ornament, center, c. 1910. To its left is a drum I made at school from milk bottle caps.
The Busch family church, St. John's (now merged with St. Mark's) Lutheran in Homestead carried on the German tradition of placing undecorated evergreen trees around a large creche to the left of the altar. For the midnight service on Christmas Eve, the sanctuary was lighted by candles placed on tall sticks at the end of the pews--a lovely vision of light shining in darkness.
The Nativity window in St. Mark-John's, made in Germany, c. 1915

My grandfather, George W. Busch, told this Christmas story of his youth in East Liberty, Pittsburgh.  His parents, German immigrants, had a tight holiday budget for their nine children. My grandfather, the oldest, recalled his father making a Christmas tree by drilling holes in a broomstick, then placing sticks in them. (This is part of a scene in Darkness Visible.) The parents hung goodies on the tree, but these didn't last very long. As my dad told the story, by 5:30 a.m. the seven Busch boys had decimated everything edible on the "tree" and left the parlor in shambles.

Another of my Grandfather Busch's trees, was the one in the Machine Shop in the US Steel Homestead Works. This photo shows my grandfather admiring the big, tinsel-laden tree the year before he retired as shop superintendent, 1938.
Getting a tree has always been a Big Deal for me. I can't remember a Christmas without one. In her later years my mother, perhaps having burned out on the quests for the perfect tree, would get a huge poinsettia as a substitute. This is not good enough for me.
Excitement selecting a tree at the Minneapolis Farmers Market with my son-on-law Richard, 2009.
A Mid-Mod Christmas Eve by the tree in Munhall, PA, 1960.
When I lived in Duluth in 1969, before Christmas I went showshoeing with friends out in the woods north of the city. One guy's hippie girlfriend brought cranberries, bits of orange, and popcorn strung together "for the little people who live in the swamp." She painstakingly hung the treats on a swamp spruce while we watched, bemused. As we showshoed away, we looked back and saw Trinket, the golden retriever, jumping up and gobbling down the food, string and all. In about a minute, the entire tree was stripped.

As I did years before in Pittsburgh, in Minneapolis my kids also would come down the cold staircase in the foyer to see what Santa left under the tree on Christmas morning.
Daughters by the tree in the front parlor, Christmas 1981
Under a tall, skinny tree in the front parlor with dogs Watson and Minnie, late 1980s.

Our Minneapolis house, built in 1885, had high ceilings, but scant floor space. I always tried to find a tall, skinny tree, but rarely succeeded. In 2013, overwhelmed with nostalgia (for something I never did), I decided take my border collies, Kip and Viggo, and pull my old sled over to the local hardware store and bring a tree back to the house. I selected a 9-foot Fraser fir and tied it to the sled. What I hadn't anticipated, however, was the reaction of my dogs to having this scary green thing following us on the way back. Kip, completely freaked out, kept trying to bolt into the street. The tree fell off the sled three times in the three blocks to the house. But eventually we made it to the house, and the tree was set up between the parlors.
Viggo eyeing the tree suspiciously in the back yard.
The tree, set up and decorated.
This year my daughter Ceridwen and her family and I went to a local Duluth tree farm to get a freshly-cut tree.  After circling the farmyard three times, I chose a spruce that looked small enough to fit into my house.  The Duluth house, like the Minneapolis one, has lots of overhead clearance, but not much floor space in the living area.  It came as a disappointment--but no surprise--to find that the tree was much larger than it appeared at the farm. So it's squeezed between the patio doors and the dining table, crowding out one space at the table. Perhaps we'll just have to set a place for the tree on Christmas Eve. Or not.
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

                                            O Christmas tree, you please me very much! 

Wreaths, angels, stars, bells, holly, gifts, lights and candles, deer--all of these are beautiful Christmas symbols. But for me the evergreen Christmas tree, with its fragrance, lights, and colorful decorations, is best of all.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!  

The Vienna Boys' Choir sing "O Tannenbaum"
German Santa with tree, early 20th century (Image, Brian L. Bossier Collection)



Monday, December 2, 2019

Snowblind: Remembrance of Blizzards Past

"One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."
--Dylan Thomas, "A Child's Christmas in Wales"
Children in 1950's Wales.
Here in Duluth, Minnesota, last weekend we got clobbered by a powerful blizzard that filled the streets with snow and pounded the lakefront with huge breakers.The storm began haltingly Friday night. The next morning most of us were thinking that the dire forecast of 12+ inches with gale-force winds was going to turn out to be the usual empty hype. But it didn't.

Around 2 p.m. on Saturday, flurries started coming down. Then the wind picked up. I decided to venture out before the storm bore down for a walk with the dogs to the top of the hill in the park behind my house around 3:15. Three deer crossed the path into the park, heading into the woods. By the time we reached the top of the hill, the storm had significantly intensified. As we started down the steepest part of the trail, the wind-driven snow stung my eyes. The dogs' coats became snow-covered. To see where I was going, I had to shield my eyes with my choppers.
Three does entering the woods.
The dogs going up the hill.
Video: The blizzard on the trail.

The last ten minutes of the walk were quite unpleasant, with snow blasting into my face, filling the hood on my coat. The deer were barely visible by then in the blizzard, standing in the woods with their backs to the wind. At last, we made it to the shelter of the house, the dogs leaving puddles of slush on the floor inside.

Melting the snow indoors.

The blizzard raged on all night long, finally petering out in late morning Sunday. People began posting photos on social media and news media: kids snowboarding down city streets, cars completely covered in drifts, plows making huge snow ridges as they cleared snow from the roads, etc.
One of the photos I posted: my border collie Viggo wallowing in snow.
As I looked through the snowstorm gallery, it struck me that a number of the comments were along the lines of: "I remember blizzards like this years ago, when I was a kid."  Many people recalled Ye Tempests of Yesteryear as tremendous storms, far more impressive than those of today. Is this really true? I wondered.
"Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth" by J.M.W. Turner, 1842. Tate Gallery.

In the recorded history of weather in Minnesota, there have undoubtedly been terrific storms. For example, on March 8-9, 1892, a tremendously powerful blizzard struck Duluth. With 70 mph winds, blinding snow piled drifts over 20 feet high, blocking second-story windows in some buildings. By comparison, this most recent storm packed 35 mph sustained winds, gusting to 50, even 60 mph. While the winds weren't quite as powerful, the snowfall was one for the record books, the ninth highest two-day snowfall in city history. Between 18 and 24 inches of snow fell on Duluth, varying by neighborhood. Washburn, Wisconsin, on the south shore of Lake Superior, got dumped on with 31 inches of the white stuff. Decades from now, today's kids will be talking about the storm that closed the city and held it snowbound for days.
Plows clearing a street in Duluth on Sunday, December 1, 2019 (Photo: KBJR6)
A guy shoveling out his completely snow-covered car in Duluth (Photo by Kim Shute Mozell on Facebook)

As Dylan Thomas suggests, childhood memories often provide a exaggerated vision of reality, and adult memories can also be blurred and distorted by retrospection. I thought back to the most memorable storms for me: the 1950 Thanksgiving storm in Pittsburgh and the 1991 Halloween storm in Minnesota.

On Thanksgiving Day 1950, I can't even remember where we had dinner. Then, the next day, the snow began to fall. For three days, snow kept falling on the Pittsburgh area. By the end, the National Weather Service recorded 27.4 inches, a record that still stands. Many areas reported 30 to 40 inches. I remember the neighbors coming out into the snow-filled street to shovel out. No snowblowers, no fancy plows, just backbreaking shoveling. No snowtires. People had to put chains on their tires to get around the Pittsburgh hills. Schools and businesses were closed, the city paralyzed.

Pittsburghers shoveling out, 1950 (Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
From my view on James Street in Munhall, it seemed the whole world was in the thrall of the white stuff. Everything was white. The snow was so deep, our sled just got stuck. My heavy wool coat and hat became soaked with melting snow after I came inside. It seemed it took forever for them to dry out. The only specific memory of that storm I retain is slogging through the snow over to my Aunt Estella's house on John Street, two blocks away, to help them eat leftovers. To me, the Pittsburgh Thanksgiving storm is unforgettable, a collage of images of a world turned cold and white.
A Pittsburgh streetcar passing a snowbound car after the 1950 storm. (Photo by Ethel Lloyd Papers)

Back in Minnesota, the most-remembered megastorm is the Halloween blizzard of 1991 (Why do these storms seem to hit on holidays?) I was living in Minneapolis then. My daughter Ceridwen and her friend Colin came to the house after school on Halloween--and Colin didn't make it home that evening. The snow fell heavy and hard for hours. All evening, we kept looking outside, amazed at the snow piling up in the street and yard. When day dawned on November 1st, 28 inches of snow were on the ground. Shoveling out the driveway and walk took hours. There was nowhere to put the snow. Good luck getting the snowblower out of the garage, and if you did, it couldn't throw the snow high enough over the surrounding piles of snow. It took Minneapolis many days to get the streets cleared. St. Paul gave up on plowing, and until the spring thaw, motorists bumped over grooves and ridges of packed snow and ice to get around the city. This storm affected not only the Twin Cities, but much of the state. Duluth got a whopping, paralyzing 37"--a statewide record that still stands.
Downtown Minneapolis after the 1991 storm (Photo: NWS)

Digging out in Duluth, 1991 (Photo: Fox 21)
Those are the big snowstorms I remember especially, and others who lived through them have their own unique memories. We have Dylan Thomas to thank for his wonderful child's recollections of Christmas snows in Wales. Life would be duller without those fantastic, fanciful images recalling the storms of bygone years. Cherish the memories.

"Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed."