Sleigh ride?

Many families have special traditions for the holiday season, with heart-warming tales that are lovingly passed on from one generation to the next.

This is not one of those tales. (Though it could be considered a humorous anecdote.)

It happened during a Christmas season in the late 1970’s. I don’t remember exactly when, but my brother was still in the first stages of elementary school, which suggests the period of 1976 to 1979. The scene was in my childhood home town of Homer, New York, during one of the heavier winter snowfalls, about a week before Christmas. My family used actual trees at Christmas well into the 1980’s, so each year we would find a suitable pine tree to fill our living room. After the holidays, the remains of the tree would be put along the side of the house where it served as a shelter for birds and other animals until it was broken down for compost in the spring.

We generally tried to acquire a tree one week before Christmas, so that it would still have most of its needles through January 5th (Epiphany, or Twelfth Night). One of our “go to” places for a Christmas tree was a place called Forest Fisheries in Homer. It was a local business that sold gear for hunting and fishing, as well as various other sports that were popular in the region. It’s still in business, and now sells boats and all-terrain vehicles in addition to hunting and fishing equipment. During the Christmas season they sold trees (and may still), mostly from local tree farms. White pine and blue spruce grow in great quantities in upstate New York, so they were always in good supply.

This particular year we had a unique problem: our car was in repair. My father had arranged a carpool to his office at SUNY with a co-worker, my brother and I could both walk or bike to school, and there were some small local grocery stores in Homer at the time. So basic needs were not a problem. But how were we going to get a Christmas tree to the house without a car?

I had a small, wooden sleigh. roughly five feet in length (think of Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud”). Forest Fisheries was only four blocks from our home, so that year we decided to use that sleigh to transport a tree back to the house. So, during the driving snow, the four of us dragged that sleigh over to the place, picked out a nice blue spruce, loaded it up, then dragged it home.

Many people saw this display: a family of four, with the family dog happily marching along side, bringing home a Christmas tree on a wooden sleigh. It probably looked like something from a Currier and Ives print. For a few years after that we had people complement us on our “lovely family tradition.”

The truth is we didn’t enjoy it at all! The tree refused to stay lashed to the sleigh, and had to be re-tied at least twice. My brother ended up riding on the sleigh with the tree, holding it by the trunk to keep it in place. Pine needles fell out of his hair for days afterward. A layer of ice had formed under the snow in the streets of Homer, which made the sleigh hard to control, and footing very difficult. I fell down at least four times. Over the course of the trip, the snowfall went from moderate to heavier-than-usual, even by Central New York standards. Our dog Sparky, who was generally loyal to a fault, got sick of the whole thing and eventually ran ahead home.

We never did that again. After the ordeal, my parents decided that if we were ever in a situation like this again, we would order an artificial tree from the Sear’s catalog, and just hope it arrived in time. As it turned out, we never again were without a functioning car at Christmas, and we didn’t switch to an artificial tree until I was in college.

But even so, for many years after that people would ask us about our perceived family tradition of bringing home a Christmas tree on a sleigh, and how we would disappoint them. I now wonder how many romantic notions we managed to shatter. I now find that when I look at a Currier and Ives painting on a holiday card, and I see people riding in horse-drawn sleighs and what not, I have to ask myself if the people in that scene were really enjoying themselves, or if they were longing to be indoors in front of a warm fire!

Are they really having fun, or just indulging the viewer?

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