'Arizona Christmas Tree'

An “enthusiastic” Andy Howell sits in front of a Christmas tree made out of a yucca bloom stalk circa 1990s.

A story we published this week about a Mesa family and their “Phoenix Christmas tree” made of cholla cactus skeletons reminded me of my own father’s efforts to come up with an “Arizona Christmas tree” when I was a kid.

At some time during my youth in Tucson there was a shortage of Christmas trees in the city. The prices skyrocketed and the numbers in lots around the booming desert city were limited. What caused the shortage has faded from memory with time. But what hasn’t faded was the solution my father came up with, which is now part of Howell family lore and sprung a little tradition.

My father, never one to spend more than he thought was necessary, began thinking of an alternative to purchasing one of the pricey trees available. With relatives expected to join us for the holidays from back East, my dad thought this was an excellent opportunity for them to experience an “Arizona Christmas.” So he set out to create a unique tree that represented our desert habitat.

His first effort stuck with me and my brothers — literally.

My father dragged me out into the alley behind our home and directed me to collect as many tumbleweeds as I could find. I was to come back with an assortment of sizes and shapes.

As I pulled the dried up weeds into the backyard, my father stacked them up in the shape of a tree, and then when his creation was ready, he got a can of gold spray paint and turned the pile into a “treasure.”

At least, that is how he saw it. To my brothers and me, it was still a pile of tumbleweeds.

When the paint dried, we hauled the weeds into the house to recreate the tree in the living room, scraping walls and doors along the way.

After the masterpiece was set up, we began decorating the so-called tree with lights and ornaments. The biggest drawback was soon apparent as my brothers and I began stepping on stickers in our bare feet or getting them stuck in our arms or clothing.

When Mom returned from shopping and saw the disaster zone, the tree literally came crashing down. I don’t think we got the tumbleweeds out of the house fast enough.

But my dad wasn’t about to give up on his quest to create an Arizona Christmas tree.

He put me in the car and the next thing I knew we were walking through the desert and I was listening to some dissertation on why we needed to find the ideal alternative to an evergreen tannenbaum.

Then my dad stopped in his tracks and looked up with awe as if he had seen the Holy Grail. In front of him was a large yucca, with a dead bloom stalk towering out of the middle. He pointed to the stick and said “There’s our Arizona Christmas tree.”

I glanced around to make sure there were no other witnesses to my father’s embarrassing reaction. It was just like Chevy Chase in “Christmas Vacation,” except we weren’t in 4 feet of snow.

My father explained how the dead blooms on the yucca stalk looked just like Christmas bells. But all I could see were the bugs racing up and down the dead stick.

He was able to break off the stalk and carefully carried it back to our car, making sure none of the “bells” were damaged.

I had to ride in the back seat with the stick on my lap as if I was holding a newborn baby.

When we returned, my dad painted the yucca stalk gold and this time it actually looked like something that could be decorated. He found a large tree planter and filled that with river rocks and placed it on a table in the middle of the living room. Then he stuck the stick in the middle.

We then decorated it with lights and ornaments.

My mother either liked the new creation or gave up fighting it. I never learned which it was.

Anyway, that yucca stalk ended up being our Christmas tree that year. Family from Wisconsin and Illinois came and everyone commented on how “unique” it was. In later family gatherings they joked about how they traveled thousands of miles to celebrate Christmas around a dead stick.

But the “Arizona Christmas tree” sort of grew on us and became a family tradition. It didn’t replace the primary pine Christmas tree at future Howell Christmases, but it was always a secondary decorative item in the room during the holidays.

When my parents got older and treks to the desert to find the perfect yucca stalk were not an option, I picked up the tradition when I was back visiting.

The family tradition basically died with my parents. My brothers and I had moved away from Tucson and started our own families and new traditions.

But whenever I see a majestic-looking dead yucca stalk, I think of my father and point to it and say to myself that would make a perfect Arizona Christmas tree.

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You can reach Andy Howell at 520-423-8614 or ahowell@pinalcentral.com.

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