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The Pandemic Has Put A Damper On A Lot Of Things, But Not This Holiday Tradition In The N.H. Woods

Sean Hurley
Jeannine Robbins-Murphy and Erin Duggan of Thornton, after decorating their trees at Smarts Brook.

For the last five years or so, NHPR’s Sean Hurley has been documenting what seems to be a growing Holiday tradition of decorating trees near his home along a favorite hiking path at Smarts Brook in Thornton.  He’s been worried that this difficult year might bring a temporary end to the tradition...until this past weekend.

Editor's Note: We reached out to the U.S. Forest Service after this story aired and learned their stance on this has changed from previous years. While the Forest Service has tolerated a limited amount of tree decorating in the past, due to the amounts of trash on the trails this past summer and the Forest Service's subsequent campaign to remind hikers and walkers to Leave No Trace, they are kindly requesting that visitors leave their ornaments at home.

It’s a cold and rainy Saturday just after Thanksgiving when I park my car in the Smarts Brook lot.  Post-one holiday, pre-another. Mid-COVID. Pre-snow. Mid-mask. Post-the-old-days certainly.  All those pres and mids and seems have tugged out a war of sorts and left me in a kind of limbo. 

And so, half awake and half asleep, half here, half there, I head out on the trail. Half hearted, with half a mind, I rise up into the half-lit pine forest above the river, and suddenly come upon Erin Duggan and her friend Jeannine Robbins-Murphy decorating trees just off the trail in the pouring rain.

Credit Sean Hurley
One of the trees...

“We were walking here in May and talking about it again,” Duggan says, “and we've been waiting ever since.”  To which Robbins-Murphy adds, “We could not wait to get out here like the day after Thanksgiving. So I think we're the first ones to decorate.  Certainly won't be the last.”

Together the two women drape a length of tinsel from one tree to the next and then the next.

“We've seen the decorated Christmas trees before and you know it's brought joy to us,” Robbins-Murphy says, “So I was telling Erin about it and she said ‘I would love to do that - to just bring some joy to the people who are walking on the trail.’”

Credit Sean Hurley
The tinselly section.

A tiny forest of decorated trees is what they’re after. “There's so few like good surprises in life,” Duggan says, “and if you don't know it's there, it's kind of really nice to come upon it and see it all decorated.”

Credit Sean Hurley
Joyful looking me, 2020

I stand beside the tinsel forest below a sparkling ornament and take a photo of myself so I might remember how, pre-the end of this difficult year, post-just realizing I could still feel the joy of such surprises...when for a moment I forgot the cup was half empty and could only see it half full.

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at
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