BUYING THE FAMILY Christmas tree has become a weekend industry -- you select a tree farm, consult maps and directions, make a choice and fell it.
Bound atop your vehicle, your evergreen makes its way home via the suburban mall traffic.
The rituals of tree acquiring in my youth were different -- and I'd say no less atmospheric -- than a wintertime pilgrimage to a Carroll County tree nursery.
Most of our trees came from a small neighborhood grocery and produce store called Butcher's in Waverly. It was a family-owned place by the side of the Greenmount Avenue streetcar tracks, and the trees, invariably old-fashioned, sweet-smelling balsams, were stacked outside on the 29th Street side of the business.
Three or four of us would take off on foot and always shoulder-carried our tree home. More often than not, my at-home grandmother, hearing that someone was off to Butcher's, gave us a little list, too. Could we also pick up a dozen Temple oranges for the icing of the orange cake she made for Christmas?
Butcher's store could have been any of hundreds of neighborhood institutions in Baltimore that sold trees. They were not fancy -- and their delightful ordinariness was imbued with a sense of a December night in old Baltimore.
The street-corner sellers were so atmospheric because Baltimore was itself so atmospheric -- small streets, clanging streetcars, granite curbs, leaning walls and low levels of streetlights. We often forget how late Baltimore was to give up on gas lighting.
These corners where the tree hawkers offered their Canadian wares -- back then, most of the trees came in on railway cars from the provinces of Canada and sometimes northern Maine -- smelled perfect. The balsams sweetened the slightly humid December night with a thick perfume of Christmas.
The other smell that floated around was the smoky pinewood and fruit box scrap wood that were the fuel source for the fire that constantly burned in an oil drum or ash can. No one ever wasted coal when resinated tree stumps were around for free.
My South Baltimore grandmother enjoyed battling and haggling about price. She felt the prices dropped as the vendor imbibed too much -- and also, as the 24th approached.
Baltimore doesn't often get a true white Christmas with clean snow. But a December snowfall is not unheard of. I think one of my most vivid recollections is of a wet snowy 7: 30 scene, when we took off for Greenmount Avenue just as a monstrous Baltimore Transit Co. snow sweeper was snorting and growling as it made its way up the Greenmount Avenue hill in the stretch between St. Ann's and St. John's churches.
These sweepers were extra-heavy streetcars that carried no passengers except for the men who ran them. The one I recall was a dull gray color, with a pair of huge bristle wheels that cleaned the streets like two huge floor polishers. They also emitted sparks as the ice formed on the overhead wires and the trolley pole fought back. The sweepers worked hard -- and they were probably 40 years old in 1960.
That one distant December night I saw one of these traction dinosaurs cleaning the main street of Waverly stands out as just about a perfect time of preparation.
And there were others, at this, one of my favorite times of the year, when the early evening skies seem to bless Baltimore and its ancient neighborhoods with a soft orange glow as pretty as the fires in those oil drums.