Tip #1 – Take your time. Go when you have an hour or so to walk around, especially if it’s a big tree farm. Wander around one field and then move to another and then move back to the first one again. Remember that living trees look different from different angles.
I grew up in a very rural area of New Jersey – the part of the state that isn’t often slandered and really isn’t talked about much at all. It’s a region where trees cover the landscape like a patchwork blanket. And it really is a landscape – you can see rolling hillsides covered in that blanket of treetops from the foot of most main roads around here. My parents’ house sits upon one of those rolling hillsides, and they are living within that patchwork of trees. In the winter, when the leaves fray and fall, you can stand on their road and look out through the loose threads of wiry black branches to the glimmering gray reservoir three miles south and hundreds of feet below.
Growing up in a place so thick with trees meant living near to several Christmas tree farms. One in particular, a family-run stretch of green-and-yellow, downward-sloping land with a clear southern view, is the closest of them all and where we’ve been getting our Christmas trees for over fifteen years. This past weekend, we went another time to tag our 2015 trees.
The entrance to the farm takes your car down a pebbly dirt driveway shadowed by red-leaved trees and lined by white fencing belonging to a neighboring property. The drive is just long enough for you to keep those accompanying you in suspense for a few seconds while you drive, because at first, it’s not immediately apparent where you’re going. Then, the narrow view from your front window gives way to a much, much wider one, and to the sight of several huge, ancient pines dwarfing all of the others growing enviously around it. From there, you can just park your car right about where you’ve landed – anywhere on the grass seems fine – and get out, and march forward, and begin your hunt.
Tip #2 – Make sure the tree you choose isn’t so water-deprived that the branches are already starting to turn brown at the base, near the tree trunk. This will cut your period of low-maintenance enjoyment short and prematurely usher in the time of frustration during which you vacuum needles off the floor on a daily basis and seem to track them throughout your entire living space.
This year, all six of us came tree tagging – Mom, Dad, Brian, Peter, Lexie, and I. Our family looks a little different than it did fifteen years ago, when only four of us showed up to tag trees dressed in Old Navy fleeces and white New Balances. I felt a distinct sort of pride and newfound curiosity as we walked through each field of conifers. Returning to someplace intimately familiar with new people who you’ve let in on the secret gives you the opportunity to rediscover that place, again, with them. I walked slowly, and with some aimlessness, just taking in the sharp smells of pine and mud and the way the ground there, soft, moves like putty with the movement of your feet.
This year, we had uncharacteristically warm weather. Apart from how cold it was to stand in the shadow of the tallest trees, everything was bright sunshine and still air. The sky was a watery blue, empty of clouds. It was picture perfect.
Tip #3 – Choose the right type of tree. Have a lot of heavy ornaments? Blue spruce is your best bet. Its branches are prickly like a cactus but are stiff and firm. Love a soft, classic, perfectly green tree? Go for a Douglas fir. Want something that straddles the middle, with fat, cartoonishly lush, green branches but also some sturdier spots for ornaments? Choose a concolor.
Like they do every year, and like we always have, Mom and Dad tagged two Christmas trees. Everyone who celebrates Christmas is in a different camp when it comes to trees – there’s the camp that staunchly defends the beauty of choosing and decorating a real, freshly-cut tree; there’s the camp that passionately advocates for the convenience, ease, and greeting card symmetry of an artificial tree; and there’s the camp that maybe grew up celebrating Christmas, sure, but ultimately has little interest in the bother of cutting or assembling and decorating any kind of tree, and thus does so (or doesn’t) with little enthusiasm. My parents have always been members of the first camp, with such voracity that they go double-or-nothing every season. One tree, in the living room, ends up decked in rainbow lights and adorned with the many, many ornaments collected while Peter and I grew up. The other, in the sitting room across the hall, is always decorated in softer white lights, and becomes a home for my mom’s sizeable, sentimental collection of sparkly glass baubles.
Brian and I are in that first camp too. There is just something magical about a “real”, living, fresh tree, the trunk sticky with sap and the needles so delicate, like brittle lace, existing inside of your home. It’s a temporary kind of magic – like every living thing, trees do die, and much more quickly once you’ve cut them from the ground and propped them in a plastic pot in your very dry living room. A month after your tree goes up, the needles shower down, making dry little piles on the carpet. The branches turn a rusty reddish-brown. By the time you’ve willed yourself to take it out to the roadside (if you’re anything like me, this takes a while), it’s bittersweet to see the last vestiges of the year’s magic disappear.
But the temporary nature of a “real” Christmas tree is what makes it magical, in a lot of ways – it doesn’t last for very long at all, so appreciating, savoring it, soaking in its smell and feel and presence becomes time-sensitive and urgent and important. A living tree forces you to hurry up and slow down and enjoy its presence while it lasts. And it lets you know, in the same way every time, when it’s time to move on again.
Tip #4 – Measure the space in which you’d like to put your tree – height AND width – before you go. Bring a tape measure with you, or make sure you borrow a measuring pole from the tree farm.
It’s a strange feeling to be tagging my own Christmas tree in addition to helping my parents find theirs. Even though this is the third year we’ve done it, it still feels new. I am glad Brian and I are honing our tree negotiation skills from the comfort of the same old familiar tree farm.
Brian has revealed himself to be much more passionate about tree selection than I ever would have expected. It is kind of irresistibly adorable – so much so that for each of these last three years of tree tagging together, I’ve let him make the final call on our tree of choice. Each year so far, we have chosen concolor fir trees. This year was no different, and once again we ended up smitten with their soft, fat branches and mossy green needles. Our 2015 tree is a round one, shorter than the last two but as fat as fat can be. Although I was concerned that it would be difficult to fit in our tiny space, Brian’s case (in the form of batted eyelashes) won me over. He has agreed to do any additional trimming, should it be required.
Tip #5 – Write legibly on your tree tag, so that your friendly tree farmer can find the tree you so painstakingly selected.
At the end of each annual tagging visit, we usually stay to talk a little with the tree farm’s owners, a sweet couple that has been in business for a long time. In the first years that we visited their farm for our Christmas trees, they owned a herding dog of some sort with a silky black and white coat. Peter and I loved him, and loved how he would nonchalantly follow our four-person brigade around the farm, sniffing around the tree trunks while we hemmed and hawed. Every year, while my parents talked with the owners, we would throw a ratty yellow tennis ball for him to chase out amongst the pines in the closest field.
That dog died a few years ago, and the owners now have a new one. The new dog, of the same breed it seems, looks a lot like the first but with one brown eye and one blue. He is less extroverted but just as enthusiastic about playing fetch with that ratty tennis ball.
This weekend one of the owners told us that they are no longer planting trees, which take nearly ten years to reach the average mature size for tagging. It was bittersweet to hear, and to realize that when the last of the baby trees smattered throughout the property are grown, the farm will likely be owned by someone else. It will eventually feel sad and strange to buy a Christmas tree without also playing fetch with a scrappy black and white dog and perhaps at a different tree farm altogether.
It feels like this stuff is happening all around me now, this naturally occurring juxtaposition of beginnings and endings. Christmas trees are planted and if cut down, they die. We decorate them and then break them down. New traditions start just as old ones begin to fade. I watched my parents choose trees at the base of the farm’s sloping property while Brian and I stood higher up, in a different field, tagging a different tree destined for a different home.
Deciduous trees – your maple, your oak – lose their leaves at the end of autumn, but grow them again in the spring.
Some things – like a conifer rooted firmly in the ground – stay green the whole year through, less susceptible to the winds of change and circumstance. Like tradition, which does not live or die by the place in which it happens. Or families, though their shapes may shift. The trees at the farm that won’t ever be tagged will stay, covering that particular hillside.
Tip #6 – Bring people you love with you. Even if you’re not big on all of the hoopla surrounding Christmastime, and you feel like it’s way too early to be thinking about Christmas, it will make your tree hunt the littlest bit more magical.