In my youth, Christmas arrived by train. In California, with days in the 70’s (mid 20’s C), the only sign of Christmas being the shop decorations, there was no snow heralding the season. Living in shorts and t-shirts, it never seemed to be “the season.” One afternoon, we’d get a phone call that a package waited for us at the train station. The package was a fir tree fresh cut a couple days before by my grandfather in Corvallis, Oregon. He’d tightly wrap it in burlap and string and ship it the 600 miles south to our family in California. At the station my dad would somehow manage to tie the tree to the roof of the car for the short ride home.
Once home, we would dig out the tree stand, the boxes of ornaments and pull down from the garage attic the papier-mâché surround my dad and I built to go around the base of the tree. Over the years, the base expanded. At first, we just ran my electric train around the tree on the floor, in and out of the packages. Then one year, I might have been eight or nine, we built the base. We formed mountains out of chicken wire. Created a meadow in front of the tree. The structure we covered with sloppy, wet the papier-mâché. The train wound its way around and up, through tunnels and across meadows, snowbanks, up mountains and then back to the front. One year, we decided to buy some buildings—a train station, a few houses and barn. We spent nights in the garage creating a village at the foot of our small mountain range.
Another year, we added lights to the houses, more trees and a couple of sidings to stash cars.
Every year we added something.
As we worked on the base, the tree stood in the corner slowly relaxing, spreading the branches bound tight for the journey.
On Christmas morning, the presents spread across the end of the living room, fully displaced by the village in the meadow, the mountain and the train wending its way up and down.
And a few days later, as the wrapping was recycled, the presents found their way into bedrooms and bookshelves. The tree, stripped of ornaments, moved to the curb for the Boy Scouts to pick up. And the mountain with the village at its base went back into the attic to wait another year and for the phone call from the station. “You’ve got a package.”