LEAD, S.D. — For five decades, the Sternhagen family, led by patriarch Jim Sternhagen, have scouted, sawed, and celebrated their annual Christmas tree find by donating the mostly large-scale, towering specimen to the Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Lead.
This year was no exception. The family donated an 18-foot spruce tree now decorated with treasured and traditional hand-made church ornaments grace its boughs.
“How it started was, I was working the timber and Pastor Hubert Kaste asked me to get a tree,” said Jim. “I logged in the forest a lot.”
And a long-standing tradition was born out of the ’60s.
Since then, Jim and his five sons — Fred, Jim Jr., Scott, John, and Lewis — have all been a part of the process over the years. And now, the festivities involve nine grandchildren, and sons-in-law, as well.
“The lord always provided us with a tree,” said John. “They’ve mostly been around 18 feet tall, which is what this year’s is.”
“And they’ve been out in every winter condition,” added John’s wife, Cindy.
“Due to the snow, we’ve had to haul it to the road with a snowmobile,” John said. “Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes not so easy, but it’s always fun. Especially this year, with nearly all the family out there.”
This year’s tree was found in the Dumont area on Forest Service land, the Black Hills Pioneer reported .
“But they’ve come from all over,” John said.
Asked why the family has kept up a 50 year commitment to the church congregation in gathering its Christmas altar showpiece, Jim, who is very understated and humble, but agreed to a story for the 50th anniversary, simply stated.
“It’s kind of a tradition, I guess,” Jim said. “People do different things for the church and we were able to cut trees, so we cut trees.”
Son Lewie pointed out that the crosscut saw traditionally used to cut the tree down with is, apparently, award-winning.
“When my dad was a logger, him and my mother’s brother, Joel DeRider, used that saw in the Saw Dust Logging competitions in town,” Lewie explained. “My dad said, ‘I hope you guys know it’s a six-time championship saw you’re using.’ So at Thanksgiving, when we cut the tree down, we each took a shot at it, and everybody was cutting down the tree with this championship saw my dad had. So that was pretty special.”
John said the family normally goes out the day or so after Thanksgiving to cut the tree down, before the first week in Advent. And what follows is an annual church event.
“The church decorates it together and then we have a soup dinner or something like that,” Cindy said.
Congregation members regularly tell the Sternhagens this is one of the days they look most forward to all year.
And how, exactly, does the tree transport go down?
This year, John popped it on a trailer and, the rest, well?
“We pull it in to the sanctuary by manpower,” John said. “When we were younger, we were stronger. Then we take a pully and a rope and guide the stump into a special stand. It’s a deal. It’s heavy. Heavier than your average tree.”
On Dec. 10, congregation member Clifford Littau showed up to set up his integral and intricate watering system — a five-gallon bucket ciphering set-up that allows watering from a more strategic place than smack-dab under the monstrous tree.
The ornaments placed on the tree all have special meaning and were handmade by church members decades ago, as well.
They are called Chrismons, or Christmas decorations with Christian symbols on them, reminding Christians that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. The word Chrismon, is a combination of the words Christ and monogram. Chrismons are traditionally colored white and gold. White is the church color for Christmas and symbolizes that Jesus was pure and perfect. Gold symbolizes his majesty and glory.
More than 100 Chrismons bedeck the Shepherd of the Hills tree, including hands in prayer, the scroll, the dove, the lamp and the candle, the shell, alpha and omega, the anchor cross and dozens more, each with symbolic meaning.
“My dad is a very humble person,” Lewie said. “He likes to do stuff and doesn’t want to do it for attention. When he was a logger, he enjoyed his job. He just loves Christmas. We’ve been doing this as long as I’ve been alive. He’s 89 years old, so this year, he went out and supervised. At the end, my dad and I cut the tree down.”