The Christmas Tree Routine Perfected. Oh well.

The Northeast winter arrived early this year, with temps well below freezing and a brisk wind that reminded LifelongNewYorker that she really doesn’t like that season.  This morning, at least, the wind was light and the sun shining brightly as we went out to bag a Christmas tree. 

For nearly a quarter-century or so we donned our warmest clothes and ventured out into the wild to get the perfect tree.  No, there are no national forests nearby; we rely on Christmas tree farms.  The tradition was begun by friends who had moved to Pennsylvania and discovered some cut-your-own farms in the rural inland hills near their Delaware River community.  They invited a dozen or so couples to their house on a designated Saturday in December, served hot, stick-to-your ribs food, and led a caravan up and down the country roads to the tree farm that Mr. Pennsylvania had determined had the best selection only after scoping several out the previous week. 

Because the calendar rather than the weather determined these tree-cutting days, our memories include cutting trees in all sorts of weather — sun, snow and ice storm.  One year the weather was so bitterly cold that we  sat in the car looking at the trees until I pointed to one about  twenty feet distant.  “That one,” I instructed Mr. NYer.  He gamely left the car, tree saw in hand, and cut that  tree down in record time.  As each couple selected a tree, or, in some cases, two trees (I remember one friend had  a tree for the great room and one for the living room; another picked one  up for  his mother as well as the one for his apartment), we’d stuff them in or on the cars and head back to the house for more chili, beer and even hot mulled wine. 

The Pennsylvania years drifted into the past, but Mr. NYer and I, with a younger Soon-to-be-Abandoned in tow, found some promising tree farms closer to home, in New Jersey.  These more domesticated, suburbanized farms didn’t  allow you to saw your own trees.  Instead, you found  the one you wanted and stood there yelling “cutter!” until a strapping young man arrived, measuring pole in one hand and tree saw in the other.  

The best thing about going solo to the New Jersey farms was that we could choose the day based on weather and calendar.  The last few years have been mild, and on more than one day we’ve needed only a lightweight jacket or a fleece hoodie as we walked over muddy fields in quest of the perfect tree.  

One thing I learned from the big Pennsylvania outings is that everyone’s perfect tree is different.  We’re not just talking species here, but also size and shape.  The host and hostess have a double-height living room which imposed no limit on the tree’s height.  Her brother got a small tree for his mother, but a tall  one for himself to grace the 12-foot ceilings  in his Park Slope apartment.  Some  folks liked them full  and fluffy, with lights and ornaments clinging to the branch tips like frosting on a cake.  We preferred a fir with dark needles and open branches  to hang the heavier longer ornaments that we’d collected over the years inside.  For me, the idea was to build a tree with depth, where new delights could be discovered by looking further in for just a little bit longer. 

Mainly, though, we needed a thin tree.  At nine-and-one-half feet, our living room could take a tall tree, but its 12-foot width, once filled with guests, precluded  a fat tree.  We have become expert at judging the fit of a prospective tree.  First, Mr. NYer stands next to it as I take its measure:  the top of his head should be — ideally — about 60% up the tree’s trunk.  If he’s at 50%, the tree  is too tall; at 70%,  it’s just too short.  Next, we scrutinize the bottom to ensure the circumference will allow people and cats to move freely without blocking an entrance or knocking ornaments to the floor.  Generally, a radius (measured by the longest low branch) of about 20 inches does the trick.  It’s not easy to find a tall, skinny, dark-needled fir tree.  No pines.  No greens  that tend more toward the yellow than the blue.  No blue spruce where the needles are so blue they’re almost silver.  And, most importantly, the needles must pass an exacting touch test.  The branches must be strong enough not to sag when the heavy ornaments are hung, and the preferred needles are firm but not sharp.  Have you ever had one of those trees where the needles  actually hurt?

We’ve gotten the tree selection down to a science, even in the last six or seven years in which we’ve done it without Soon-to-be-Abandoned.  Sometimes we take a camera to document the choices.  We’ve learned to note the location of a favored tree  by the way it lines up with utility poles, a neighboring structure, and the distant oak.  When the tree is finally selected and the cutter called, I pull the car over to the baler and leave Mr. NYer to oversee the tying of the tree to the roof rack while I choose a wreath.

This year’s  trip was colder than recent ones, and we dressed as if we were headed to Pennsylvania.  I drew the line at long johns, but I had an undershirt, a wool turtleneck, another wool sweater, a fleece and my Mom’s LL Bean down jacket.  I was overdressed.  Even after ditching the fleece, I felt like  Ralphie’s little brother in The Christmas Story, padded so thick that all I could do was wheel my arms about my body.  I comforted myself with the thought that next year ‘s quest wouldn’t require  all these clothes.

But  there it is again.  This well-honed routine will be useless next year.  Instead, we’ll be adapting to the new.  A new home will mean a different limit to the height and width of the tree.  And maybe there  won’t be Christmas tree farms in that part of Alabama.  Maybe there won’t be firs.  I suspect pines are big down south.   Like everything else in our lives, what we’re used to will be useless.  We’ll have to think again, be creative,  and forge new routines, or forego them completely.  And that’s  OK.

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9 Responses

  1. like most of the folks who DON’T cut and kill their own tree at the time of purchase, us ‘southerners’ rely on trees grown in North Carolina. Alabamians are probably no different.

    ‘Cept for us. Our tree was made in some factory (probably in China – although I can’t smell melamine, antimony, or sulfur). We bought a realistic artificial tree a few years back in order to break the grow/cut/dispose cycle – only to learn now that this cycle is more ‘green’ that buying and owning an artificial that lasts for year. It’s just so hard to keep up…

    • hogh we only putup one tree we own several and will probably own more as the yeasr years go by we just like to buy christmas stuff every year we didnt buy one this year for some reason i dont know why yet too much money i guess is why i would kind of like a real tree again maybe next year storage becomes a problem after a while too how much do you really need?sometimes i think the same things about very wealthy people how many truck loads of money can you spend i guess i8ts not the spending that counts its the getting that means something to people

  2. In California and D.C., we also cut down our own trees. Caught up in the excitement, an inadvertent part of the tradition became to leave the hand saw at the scene. We’ve bought a lot of hand saws.

    In Texas, tree farms include only pine trees. We were shocked by this at first; who really thinks a pine tree makes a good Christmas tree? So now we buy a fir tree from a local nursery at a premium and carefully calibrate the number of days we have until it becomes too dry to safely have indoors. There is a designated 24-hour water monitor, and no heat is turned on that might contribute to lower humidity.

  3. My most vivid memory of going to Pennsylvania to cut down a Christmas tree was in 1988 when I was about 7 months pregnant with Elisabeth. There was about 2 feet of snow and it was frigid. We trudged through the snow until we found the perfect tree (we lived in a condo then with a cathedral ceiling and not much furniture so we wanted a really big tree). Once Peter cut it down (which was more difficult then he expected because of its size) we realized how heavy it was and how far away we were from our car. We each grabbed an end and prayed we’d make it back before I collapsed and went into premature labor. I honestly don’t know how we did it, but somehow, we carried that huge tree back to the car. Fortunately, I didn’t need to lift it onto the roof of the car — one of our friends who was waiting for us to return was able to assist Peter with that!

  4. My most vivid memory of going to Pennsylvania to cut down a Christmas tree was in 1988 when I was about 7 months pregnant with Elisabeth. There was about 2 feet of snow and it was frigid. We trudged through the snow until we found the perfect tree (we lived in a condo then with a cathedral ceiling and not much furniture so we wanted a really big tree). Once Peter cut it down (which was more difficult then he expected because of its size) we realized how heavy it was and how far away we were from our car. We each grabbed an end and prayed we’d make it back before I collapsed and went into premature labor. I honestly don’t know how we did it, but somehow, we carried that huge tree back to the car. Fortunately, I didn’t need to lift it onto the roof of the car — one of our friends who was waiting for us in the parking lot was able to assist Peter with that!

  5. I forgot that we had to carry them! And it did seem that those winters were so much colder than any we’ve had since.

  6. Our first Christmas in Lahore (Pakistan) our household effects had not yet arrived from Beirut so we had no decorations, and we thought it was much too hot to celebrate Christmas (it’s even cold in the Palestinian desert!). The few fir trees flown in for the expat community were so scrawny we turned up our noses at them… But, our observant servants, two of whom were Christian, surprised us with a freshly cut Juniper tree, and they hand made a bunch of ornaments, most of which we still hang 37 years later. I cut a star out of cardboard (a 5 pointer), wrapped it in aluminum foil, and decorated it with red dyed juniper berries (no one had invented cranberry gin in those days) and added streamers of red yarn to shine over us. That star, with few fewer nuts and with its streamers a bit more tangled stills lights our way each year reminding us of the most Christian Christmas we ever had at the hands of the most Christian people we ever knew…

  7. you can find plenty of tree sarms in bamma just not 2 feet of snow thank god for that

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