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Jessie Veeder, Published December 22 2012

Coming Home: Falling in love again next to the cedar tree

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here. We have fluffy snow on the ground, the lights are up, the wreath is on the door, and – much to the pug’s dismay – I scrounged up his Santa suit.

But you can’t wear a Santa suit without the Christmas tree, and out here at the ranch the best thing about this holiday has always been the tree.

Because the search for the perfect tree in the pastures of western North Dakota is anticipation, adventure and tradition in its purest form.

That’s right, we do the Christmas tree thing old school.

And by old school, I mean bundling up in our coveralls and neckerchiefs and scouting the 3,000 acres of semi-rugged, snow-covered landscape for a cedar that looks like it might fit nicely in the corner of our house covered in twinkling lights and candy canes, with presents beneath it and a cat climbing up the middle.

And when the clouds open up and the light shines on that perfect tree, we whip out our hand-saws, gently detach it from the earth and drag it home to live the remainder of its life on the receiving end of “oooohs” and “ahhhhs.”

It’s not a bad life for a tree – probably beats being pooped on by birds.

Anyway, my family and the families who live out here as neighbors and friends have been cutting Christmas trees off of their land since the homesteading days. As a kid walking behind my dad on the hunt for the centerpiece of the holiday, I found myself imagining what it used to be like to saddle up a horse and venture out into the hills on a mission to make a tiny house standing strong against the season in the middle of a winter farmstead feel a little warmer with the sweet smell of cedar, the land’s gift to those who had worked it all year.

I envisioned a family gathering around a humbly decorated tree, singing the same carols we sing today, tasting the recipes that have been passed down, moving in close to one another under the branches and smiling in the glow of the season.

No, the Christmas tree has never been just a tree to me. It’s been a feeling, a process, a ritual and the best memory of the season.

When my husband and I moved back to the ranch, we made an unspoken pact that we would continue to celebrate simple traditions like venturing out into our winter wonderland and cutting ourselves a cedar, the same way I did when I was a kid in my mini Carharts and Santa hat with a little twinkle in my eye.

It continues to be my favorite moment of the season, finding myself alone out here on the snowy acres my family has kept for almost a century, alongside a man I have known since we were children, searching for a little piece of our world to bring inside and give a new life.

This is our sixth Christmas together as a married couple, and I remember every Christmas tree we’ve had. I remember the first year’s drive out into the east pasture with a pickup and our small puppy. I remember how my new husband dragged that tree up the hill with a rope. I remember the sun going down and the tires spinning as we backed up off the hill and got stuck.

I remember the puppy puke and the laughter and thinking about the long, dark walk home.

I remember getting unstuck and falling in love again as we pulled that oversized tree through the door of our tiny house and found a spot for it.

I remember how it smelled.

Yes, year after year the sweet smell of cedar transports me – I’m 8 years old, unwrapping gifts with my cousins in my grandmother’s home; I’m 10, stepping in my father’s snowy footprints; I’m 13, helping my mother stir fudge.

Then I open my eyes and I’m under a cedar tree in a home I’ve made with a man who has promised to love me and to always help me find the best part of the holiday.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.