Oh, was it cold that year, colder than usual. Twenty-below temperatures and a 30-mile-an-hour wind teamed up to freeze anyone and anything within its grasp.

Our family lived in southern Minnesota, on a small farm. It was 10 acres of pasture, vegetables and apple trees. In the summer we raised chickens, but in the winter we did only "inside work." We had an evergreen and cottonwood grove, too, that protected most of the farm from winter. To look at an aerial photo, you'd say the whole farm was hunkered down against the cold and the wind.

That also was the year we decided to remodel our 80-year-old farmhouse. We had started in the fall, by stripping the kitchen walls down to the studs. Then, as so many projects do, we hopscotched from the kitchen to the dining room, living room, added a bathroom and replaced windows and floors.

And that was just the beginning.

Pretty soon the entire house was a disaster area. The furniture, dishes, books were stowed wherever they would be out of the way, all covered with dust. My wife used a camp stove to cook in the basement. We used the laundry sink to wash dishes.

By the time Christmas arrived, one thing was obvious: We would never be able to have the usual tree, decorated with lights, strings of popcorn and paper chains.

There was no way.

Our four boys, age 10, 8, 4 and 2, did not take the news well.

"Dad, it won't be Christmas without a tree," Paul, our oldest, said.

"Where would we put it?" I asked, scanning the rubble of the living room, where a tree would normally stand.

"We'll find a place," he said.

I went back to what I was doing, trying to get the kitchen ready for the new cabinets.

I heard the front door slam and looked out the side window. Paul was bundled in his parka and boots, marching across the yard toward the machine shed.

I had no idea what he was up to.

I'll give him a half a hour, I thought, then I'll go and get him.

Twenty minutes passed, and I could see the light was still on in the machine shed. Then I saw him emerge from our grove. He was dragging a tree.

A Christmas tree.

This wasn't the typical evergreen. Unable to find one the right size in our grove, Paul had sawed a limb off a small cottonwood. It was bare, without a single leaf.

I heard him banging around in the entryway, tugging at the tree to get his prize through the doorway.

"I guess we will have a Christmas tree," I said as I watched him pull off his boots and winter clothing.

"I've got just the spot for it," he said. He dragged the tree through the kitchen and into the spare bedroom, which served as our temporary living room and dining room.

He looked around the room for a minute and decided to stand it in the corner. He didn't have a stand for it, but that didn't stop him. He went to the kitchen, got a hammer and a few nails and some string and managed to get it to stand straight using a web of string tied to the nails he pounded into the walls.

By then, his little brothers got into the act, decorating it and dancing at the thought of having a real, live Christmas tree.

That evening, we all perched on the boxes and piles of books and admired their handiwork.

As the wind outside rattled the windows, inside we knew this would be the best Christmas ever.

Carl Sampson is managing editor of the Capital Press. E-mail: csampson@capitalpress.com.

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