My earliest Christmas memory: I am 5 years old, sitting on the bench seat close beside my father in our aqua and white Buick, the one that looked like a saddle shoe, on a mission to get the best Christmas tree we can find.
We drive and we drive, until we are at last in his old Brooklyn neighborhood. We park in front of a corner lot with colored lights strung along the top of the chain-link fence.
The lot is filled with stacked Christmas trees, each trussed with twine into a tight bundle. Dozens more unfettered trees of all sizes, short-needled, long-needled, some fat with heavy branches, others oddly thin and bare, are leaning in rows, and the frozen air has the magical smell of Christmas, fresh balsam and fir.
My father has cautioned me to remain very quiet, and we have worked out in advance how I am to signal to him which trees are the good ones without revealing our preferences to the tree man.
We pick our way across the slushy lot until we are among the trees. It is very cold. There is fresh snow on the top layer of trees. The tree man sees us. He has a long black beard and wears a round fur hat, and he is bundled in a big coat that looks as if it has been made from dead animals.
His dark eyes meet mine and I look away, embarrassed, certain that I have already done the wrong thing. I reach up for my father’s hand but he is no longer beside me, and I turn to find him, then trot after him, playing my part of the little girl here to select a Christmas tree with her father.
The tree man has a large knife stuck into the leather belt that holds his coat around him, and a moment later I see him use it to slash at the twine binding a tree in order to shake it open for a customer.
“What do you think of this one?” my father asks, standing an enormous tree upright. I shake my head. It’s the wrong kind, with long, sharp needles. I like the denser kind of tree that has short needles. People who get those long-needled trees are the same people who decorate with white lights and tinsel but no ornaments, or with no lights but only one kind of ornament, just shiny purple balls all the same size, like a department store.
My father props up another tree. Too short, and it has a bald patch on one side. He tries again. This one is absurdly tall and thin, with stunted branches. We search through the trees, now demanding that the tree man cut the cords on some of the bundled ones, which he does with a flourish of the knife.
Finally we come to one tree that is perfect, proportioned gracefully from top to bottom, with boughs full of short, dense needles, just the right height for our living room. I recognize in an instant that this is the one. My father thumps it hard on the ground to test for freshness. The tree man exclaims in protest, but there is no shower of needles to betray a dried-out tree. All his trees are fresh, the tree man says indignantly: “What do you think, I would sell trees that are not fresh? I give you a good tree.”
My father looks to me for approval. I nod. This is the tree that will be perfect when it is hung with the Christmas ornaments from the trunk in the attic, from the intricately figured metal balls from Germany and the striped Murano glass candy canes from my mother’s childhood Christmas trees, to the stuffed felt mice dressed in evening clothes that my mother’s mother gave me. The tree man is hovering impatiently.
My father says something I don’t understand. The tree man counters with something else I don’t understand. My father says something dismissive and makes a gesture with his hand. The tree man shouts something. My father shouts something back and now I recognize the language used for arguments with his mother. He is arguing with the tree man. I am worried because the tree man has that knife.
My father lets the tree drop back against the stack of trees where we found it, and reaches for my hand. I don’t know what to do. I am disappointed. He takes my hand and we start to walk away. The tree man grabs our tree and walks beside us awkwardly, holding the tree in his arms and shouting some more. My father mutters something.
Now we are at the entrance to the lot. Here is our car. The tree man is following us and he is still talking. Are we leaving without a tree? I fight to hold back my tears. My father says something. My feet are frozen from walking through slushy puddles in my leaky snow boots. The sky is white with cold, and my teeth are chattering.
The tree man is trussing up our tree with twine, still shouting, almost talking to himself. My father lets go my hand to get out his wallet from his pants pocket, while shouting more angry, unfamiliar words, and now he is shaking his finger at the tree man.
The tree man leans the bundled tree against our car and puts out his hand, saying something in a more conciliatory tone, and my father matches him, repeating his words, and suddenly counts out some money into the gnarled hand, shaking his head in disgust. The tree man tsks to himself and tucks the money away into a pocket, shaking his head in matching sorrow over this unfortunate transaction.
My father tells me to get into the car, which I do, while the tree man and my father together hoist our tree onto the roof of the car and tie it down with twine that they run through the interior of the car several times.
I feel very important, scrambling to take the ball of twine when it is handed in the window to me on one side by my father and passing it through to the other side into the hands of the tree man, who looks into my eyes again for an instant and smiles briefly.
When they are done, my father says something to the tree man, who shrugs and replies, “Zay gezunt,” before he turns away to deal with another customer.
Driving away, slowly, because of the tree, which is not very aerodynamic, my father explains to me what a goniff is (the tree man), and what hondling is (bargaining to get a fair price for our tree from the goniff). Because we are in the neighborhood, we stop to get knishes at the store where my father’s cousin Morry used to work, where the people behind the counter still know my father so they give us extras. We eat the knishes on the way home. A hot knish – that is the taste of Christmas.
This article is reprinted with permission of the New York Times. Katharine Weber is the author of the forthcoming novel “Triangle.” This essay is forthcoming in an anthology by writers with mixed backgrounds, called Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Almost, Not Quite, and In-between (Paperback, Soft Skull Press, $15.95), edited by Laurel Snyder.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.