The secret of the last Christmas tree

1st December 2020 | Text: Hubert von Goisern

It began every year with the procurement of brushwood for the advent wreath. Its origin was never a secret; we cut it from a tree, from a fir in the forest that began right behind the house. After all, aside from the beech hedge, we only had fruit trees in our front garden. The biggest secret about this task might have been the specific calendar date for it. Because those not wishing to risk any premature shedding only trudged through the snowy landscape armed with the axe or saw on certain days, dragging the branches through the town. You didn't have to pick up on the high order of the moon phases to know when to head out, it was enough to observe the neighbours.

But with the arrival of the advent wreath and the scent of the fir brushwood and the biscuits wafting through the house, we children also began to puzzle about what was going to be done about the Christmas tree. Back then, there were no "Nordman" trees for sale on every other street corner. And I only discovered much later on that the forestry commission in Goisern had a courtyard. Every virtuous Goiserer instinctively avoided that building, as it housed old Beelzebub in the form of the head forester. As long as we still believed in the Christkind, everything was square: the Christmas tree was part of the Christmas miracle. With the loss of naiveté, the truth gradually came to light; only the mystery of the Christmas tree persisted stubbornly against our curious inquiries. Questions about it were forbidden, resulting in stern looks from Father and concerned looks from Mother. All we knew was that it didn't fall from heaven, until late one evening during Advent we saw our grandfather disappear into the woodshed with a tree. Under pressure and claiming a pledge of secrecy he came out with the truth, that not only was the Christmas tree not a gift from heaven, it was also the opposite, that is: stolen. Of course, only in the eyes of the forester, he added meaningfully. He saw things differently: that the forest and the mountains, the lake and the river Traun belonged to us all; of course, along with everything else that went with them: the game and the fish. And while he was on the subject, we should also know that besides the foresters, hunters, teachers and police, there were also wedding crashers, chatterboxes and gossips you had to look out for.

It wasn't until the summer of the next year that he spoke about stealing the Christmas tree again. During a mountain hike. Crossing a felling area, he indicated a group of young firs and said that there was a nice one among them. It was worth making a note of it. Beautiful stature, even and slim and – most importantly: it stood in a dense group, where "there was too little light for all of them anyway". Cutting one of them out was "nothing less than a responsibility". But since there was the possibility that this tree could be noticed by someone else who would get there first, one should scout out at least two or, or even better, three other trees so as not to end up in a fix. For once snow was on the branches, it would become difficult to make out a good tree.

When my grandfather turned 70, my mother decided that my father had to forbid his pre-Christmas tree theft. I can still see him in front of me, how he slowly and silently ate his potato soup and when he was finished, he announced that I was ready to take over. I was 16 after all. From now on he would just "obtain" one tree, for his daughter, who lived in town. He kept up this form of resistance until he was 75, when his fate befell him. The introduction of sealed bought trees was only partly to do with it. All the adults appealed to his conscience, and told him that it was now time to give it a rest. If someone caught him or found out, he could be locked up - and his daughter too …

I met him in the afternoon, just as he was coming from the station, having taken the tree there to be sent to Linz. He was unusually high-strung and his face was beet red. He seemed a bit confused and it was a while before I was able to make sense of what he was saying and discover the cause of his outrage. He'd gone to the forestry commission for the first time in his life to buy a Christmas tree.

Having inspected all the firs, he ascertained that there was only one tree that met his ideals. However, this one had eight boughs and thus was much too big for Aunt Mimi's living room. Since the smaller trees were all "rubbish", that is, of irregular shape, only the one with eight boughs was an option. Mind you, he was only prepared to pay for the top five boughs. But those little snot-noses had insisted that he pay for the whole tree. He thereupon went home and returned a little later with a foxtail saw in his rucksack. In an unobserved moment he had sawn off the bottom three boughs of the tree and taken it to the cash desk. He'd found it right at the back, he must have missed it before.

Once he'd told me this, he went home to have a lie down. He didn't wake from this sleep. Stroke, the doctor said – "Had he been worked up about anything in the last few hours?"

It still makes me happy to this day that his "last tree" was at least partially poached.