I grew up in a family with a long tradition of making a living from the northeast Florida pine forests and my father still had access to the land his family had owned for generations. So it was perfectly natural, when it was time to put up a Christmas tree, to go out to the forest to an area my father had previously scouted as a likely spot to find a good one. We always had a freshly cut red cedar, and because they grew naturally, they had all the quirks and faults of real trees. They had bare spots, were never quite symmetrical, and sometimes sported an old bird's nest tucked back into the branches. I have to admit I always wished we could get a beautifully shaped if not quite fresh blue spruce shipped from somewhere up north.
One year, while riding down one of the forest roads looking for a red cedar, we drove through an area that had recently been clear-cut. All the mature pines had been hauled off to the paper mill and only the scraggly pines, black-jack oaks and palmettos were left. And standing off by itself was a holly tree. My father had a particular reverence for hollies. Perhaps it was a feeling that went all the way back to ancient British respect for holly, mistletoe and ivy. We were never allowed to cut down a holly tree. But this particular holly tree had the bad luck to be growing in an area that would soon be bulldozed prior to replanting new pines.
The holly tree had a beautiful shape and dark green color. But holly leaves, even though they are evergreen, do not lend themselves to being decorated. They have defensive spines around the outside, just like a cactus. Would it make a Christmas tree? We kids were consulted. Would our mother like it? Because it would be bulldozed anyway, could the rule against cutting down hollies be relaxed just this one time?
We never did get a blue spruce. But that one year, we did have a unique holly Christmas tree. If I remember right, it never did get decorated to the extent that we decorated our regular cedars. We probably got pricked enough times that we quit the decorating and just let the tree itself shine through with its own beauty. That was one of the best Christmas trees we ever had.
Sometimes things mean more than we realize at the time. It was only later that I heard this old Christmas Carol that finds parallels between the holly tree and Mary the Mother of Christ: