Saturday, December 3, 2011

Fresh Cut for the Holidays

The first weekend in December heralds our family's expedition to a local tree farm to cut a Christmas tree for our home. This tradition started in 1994, a year after our first Christmas together as a married couple. That first Christmas, we bought a cut tree from a tree lot in town. In the process of decorating it, the white shirt I was wearing started to turn green. Our "fresh" tree had been spray-painted green. After that experience, we've insisted on cutting a tree ourselves. Not only are we assured a fresh tree, it's also a way to support the local economy instead of a tree farm hundreds of miles away.

Over the years, we've rotated through a few local tree farms, including Seifert Tree Farm in White Heath, Hardy's Reindeer Ranch in Rantoul, and Conkeytown Tree Farm in Fithian. We're always shopping for a taller-than-average (around 8-9 feet) but narrow tree, so most tree farms only have a few trees that match our requirements. Each year, we'll also take note of potential candidates for the next year's tree and rotate to a new farm if we think pickings will be sparse. This year, we chose Hardy's because we were happy with the selection last year and our son wanted to see the reindeer, too.

The selection was rather slim at Hardy's for a skinny 9-footer, but we found a Canaan Fir (Abies balsamea var phanerolepis) on the edge of the farm that fit the bill. Canaan Fir is related to Frazier and Balsam firs and native to the Canaan Valley in West Virginia. (Source: Penn State University)

There was quite a bit of grass growing up into the lower branches of the tree, so before cutting I had to make like the gardener I am and do a little weeding. Last year, we had to dig out tree out from two feet of snow, so I certainly wasn't complaining about a little fescue.

While I did my weeding, my son found a tree more his size and gave it a little TLC. Since my face was buried in weeds, I didn't know what he was doing this until seeing this photo that my wife snapped. My son has a soft spot for baby animals, so it was heartwarming to see him extend this love to a young tree.

Once the weeds were cleared a way, I took out the pocket chainsaw my father-in-law had loaned me from his pilot's survival kit. I'd had a chance to use one of these saws during scout leader training, and was impressed once again with its ease of use. If you've ever tried to cut a sappy tree with a bow saw while simultaneously laying on the ground, you'll appreciate a much easier alternative. In less than 30 seconds of arm pumping, the tree lay on the ground. (I'll admit, this was on the second pass. One note about the pocket chainsaw: Don't stop in the middle and lose your momentum, or you'll never get it started again.)

I love the feel of the air out in the field of a Christmas tree farm. It's like you can sense the increased oxygen being pumped out by the rows of fir, pine and spruce. Each row is renewal, as saplings serve as neighbor to beautifully mature trees. But the true experience is olfactory. The scent of evergreens makes a skeptic like me believe in a benevolent higher power.

The forecast rain never amounted to more than few sprinkles, so we had time after tree cutting to visit the reindeer that give Hardy's Reindeer Ranch its name. We watched in awe as these beautiful animals slowly made their way around, noisily munching the grass in the paddock.

Once home, we were joined by my wife's parents and began to decorate the tree. My job is to put the lights on the tree and then help my son attach the star on top. It's certainly nice to be able to use our loft staircase in stead of teetering on a ladder for this finishing touch on the tree lighting.

To fit the tree in our tree stand, I needed to remove several of the lower branches. Combined with some red-twig dogwood and boxwood from the garden, they'll make a nice holiday centerpiece for our dining room. The smaller vase will decorate the vanity in our master bathroom.

After we'd selected our tree at the tree farm, I noticed a bird's nest in the interior branches. We've always considered this a symbol of good fortune, so we removed the nest so it would survive the tree shaker and then replace it once the tree was decorated.

While many families choose a different decorative theme for their Christmas trees each year, our tree is more of a family history. Along with more generic ornaments, our tree is decorated with ornaments from our childhood trees as well as one new ornament from each year of our marriage. Pictured above is our ornament from 2003, soon after our son was born. This year, we added a jingle bell painted like a baseball, to celebrate our son's first year in Little League.

Each year after our Christmas tree is trimmed and the other holiday decorations are put up, there is a feeling in the house like no other. No matter what stresses may enter our daily lives during the holidays, we try to end each night enjoying each other's company in the glow of the Christmas lights. There is no other time of the year when our house feels more like home.

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