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.