A Holiday Tree for Wildlife

During the last thirty years, I’ve lived in three uniquely New Hampshire homes. And in each place, we celebrated the Christmas holiday a bit differently, adding traditions as more children came along, then letting some go as children grew up and moved away.

Only one ritual has remained through the years, one that takes place long after the joyful Christmas commotion has abated. Once the lights and the ornaments have been taken off the tree and boxed up for another year, we “plant” the tree in a snow bank and decorate it with homemade treats for the birds, squirrels and other creatures that are braving the New England winter.

Our first home was an 1835 farmhouse on a remote stretch of meadow overlooking a pond where my children learned to swim and skate. With no television and few neighbors, homespun crafts and projects were a family affair, and central to every season. As loaves of bread were rising near the temperamental coal cookstove, we’d sit at the kitchen table and string Cheerios on twine and cover pinecones with peanut butter, which we’d roll in birdseed. The kids were small then, and tended to attack projects with spurts of energy punctuated by long stretches spent staring out the window as the snowflakes swirled by and the snowdrifts swelled. We always placed the wildlife tree in front of the picture window in the kitchen, with a photo book nearby so the kids could identify the birds that visited. Because we’d cut down the tree from our own woods, it was spindly and sparse, bare at the top but with the lower branches bent from the weight of the homemade treats the kids had hung.

When our growing children needed playmates and a neighborhood school, we built a Colonial on a lot in the nearest city. Holidays revolved around our tight-knit group of neighbors with cookie exchanges, parties where Santa was played by the grandfather across the street and homemade luminaries lighting the way from house to house. Often, friends joined us to decorate our tree for the animals. The kids cranked up their music as they strung grapes, raisins and popcorn on floral wire, and cut slices of apples and oranges to hang with twine. The only trick was finding a place to set the tree where the chickens and rabbits we’d brought with us from the country wouldn’t eat everything before the wild animals had a chance.

As the children moved away for college and then careers, we sold our Colonial to a young family and built a cottage on a sixty-acre hillside. When our kids are on vacation or on a break from grad school, they love to visit, exploring the trails that lead from our back yard on foot in the summer and on snowshoes in the winter. In January, over glasses of wine, we assemble our decorations for the wildlife tree. The kids bring their own ideas about how to make ornaments now, like stirring birdseed and granola into cooled bacon grease, then spooning the mixture into mesh onion bags. My son sets the tree on the deck so my husband, now semi-retired, can watch the birds perch on the branches as he has his morning coffee.

Why this tradition has lasted while others haven’t, I can’t say. Perhaps it’s about timing: it’s a final whiff of Christmas as one more holiday season fades into memory. Whatever the reason, our wildlife tree continues to be the family tradition that everyone returns home to embrace.

Categories: At Home in NH