By Dave Stancliff/For The Times Standard
Sometimes solemn. Sometimes silly. Always special.
Presents for my two sisters, brother, and me always appeared under the tree on Christmas morning. Never before.
On Christmas Eve we each got to open a present. Without fail, it was pajamas for all of us. Santa always wanted us to look good on Christmas morning. He also didn’t want us poking and prodding presents to see what they were until that magic morning.
My mother, never one who liked surprises, always opened her Christmas presents while the rest of the family were supposedly sleeping, then carefully re-wrapped them. We were all wise to that game but never said anything. Sorry Mom; I had to share your touching little holiday habit.
In the winter of 1979 my wife and I wanted to start a new tradition. Cutting down a real Christmas tree. Both of us were raised in the city and the only Christmas trees we saw were for sale on wooden stands in corner parking lots.
We went with another couple who were longtime residents of Humboldt County, to a thick strand of trees on the side of a mountain on Highway 299. We took our three young sons, who eagerly anticipated the new experience of cutting down a tree for Christmas.
It was cold and snow blanketed the ground. And the tree tops. My wife, sons and I went in one direction, and our friends the other. We agreed to meet back at the pickup trucks. The crisp wind made me wish I’d remembered my gloves, but I didn’t let that dampen my spirits.
My little family was out in the woods on an adventure and I felt pretty good about it. The boys and my wife plowed through snow drifts with laughter that never seemed to stop. What a day. The stuff memories are made of.
After a free-for-all snow fight, we walked around until we found the right tree. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Christmas Vacation” there’s a part where Clark cuts down a monstrous tree that barely fit in their house. I did not make that mistake.
The tree we selected would easily fit into our little house. It was on a steep incline, but no problem. I cautioned my family to step back. It was time for the man of the house to take care of business.
Despite my friend’s advice, I had not brought a full sized ax to cut down the tree. Instead, I had a recently purchased hatchet, and was confident of my ability to get things done with it. I was just cutting down a spruce, not a Redwood!
There were a few things working against me as I peeled off my jacket and took up an awkward stance in preparation for the assault. The tree stood on a steep hill. I missed my first mighty swing and rolled a short way down the hill! I jumped up instantly as my concerned family looked on.
“Just playing around,” I joked and trudged back up to the tree whistling “Silent Night.” My hands were really cold by now so I wanted to make short work of the job. On my next swing the sharp hatchet bit into the bark with a satisfying thunk.
I swung again, suddenly confident, and the hatchet glanced off the tree and struck my left shin with a sickening smack! My wife and the boys were at an angle that prevented them from seeing where the second swing landed. I gritted my teeth and felt real stupid as I smiled down at them and tried to staunch the blood with a handful of snow.
They all looked so innocent. So trusting of my abilities, that I knew I had to conceal the wound. At least until we got home and I could take my dear wife aside and get some medical attention.
I stood on one leg and one knee hacking away like a man possessed. The tree couldn’t withstand my ruthless attack for long. It finally fell over and slowly slid down the hill. I pulled it over to the truck as my wide-eyed sons babbled happily. With my friend’s help we hefted it into the back of the truck.
No one noticed my bloody shin in all the excitement and I managed to drive back to the house with my secret intact. Afterward my wife treated the deep cut (right to the bone) on my shin between fits of laughter. We agreed not to share what happened, but the story came out the following year when we didn’t cut a tree for Christmas and our sons wondered why.
As It Stands, sometimes traditions are short-lived, but none the less memorable. Merry Christmas to you from the Stancliff family!