December 16, 2009

Oh, Christmas Tree

I grew up in Miami which is Christmas tree hell unless you consider decorated Norfolk Island pines to be festive. Back when I was a kid, as nearly as I can reconstruct events, a truck that probably left Nova Scotia sometime in August made its way down U.S. 1, shedding needles all the way, finally dumping a load of scorched Scotch pines in supermarket parking lots around the city on Thanksgiving day. We would go to a lot in our town, run by the Lions Club, and pick out a pathetic, five-foot-tall specimen. Its remaining needles would be brown long before Christmas Day, let alone New Years. (It should go without saying that this was long before Harry and David would ship you a fresh tree overnight.)

One of the benefits of moving north was to discover the joys of cutting a fresh tree and discovering that Fraser firs smell different than Balsams and that long-needled pines have plusses and minuses. Having been deprived of such things for so many years, I have sort of gone overboard for the past few decades, opting for ever-larger specimens. In Virginia, I once unceremoniously landed in a mud wallow trying to pull a ten-foot-diameter tree through a baler.

In Massachusetts, presented with the unlimited potential of an 18-foot-high ceiling in one room, I confess I went wild. (Although it must be pointed out that I was ‘enabled’ by Betty who, though she is a native New Yorker, is no less enamored of fresh trees.) We would make a day of it; hiking for hours across a hundred acres of trees arranged by type. To me, it was heaven.

Our tallest topped out at more than 14 feet, had a 25-foot circumference and was steadied by three guy wires to keep it upright in a stand that was seriously over its rated capacity. We found the tree in southern Rhode Island, 70 miles distant, and brought it home in a borrowed pickup truck, the tree strapped to and overhanging both ends of the truck. Rumbling up I-95, our truck with its cargo bore an uncanny resemblance to a Boeing 747 ferrying the Space Shuttle.

This year, we are in Giant Christmas Tree withdrawal. Because of a back injury, cutting our own tree was not a realistic option. Instead, we perused a lot in our town (run by the Lions Club, naturally) as well as commercial ventures that spring up for a few weeks each December. Further, we agreed ahead of time that decorating a tree off of a pair of eight-foot ladders as we have done in past years was not in the cards. Our 2009 tree would be no taller than eight feet.

What I discovered was that a) cut Christmas trees look a heck of a lot better than they did fifty years ago, and b) the cost ranges from reasonable to astronomical. Big John’s, the cut-your-own tree farm in Rhode Island that has been our source of yuletide greenery the past two years, charges $35 for any tree. Add in gas money and the price is still under $50 for that ideal tree, regardless of size.

The starting price for trees in the Lions lot was $45 for short-needled balsams that were guaranteed to start shedding needles as soon as we strapped it to our car. Fraser firs, our preferred trees, were $65 and up. A seven-foot one was $85 and had a gaping hole in one side.. While five dollars of the purchase price went to the Medfield Food Cupboard, we thought the cost too high.

We had heard that trees at Home Depot were fresh and realistically priced. Realistically priced, yes, but still packed so tightly from shipping that we felt we were choosing a dehydrated specimen to which we would need to add water. We passed. A ‘family’ tree lot in an adjacent town offered Bruce Springsteen carols (I had no idea) and great trees… for a hundred dollars. We passed again.

Our fallback position had always been to drive down to Big John’s and avail ourselves of one of the fresh-cut specimens they keep on hand for those in a hurry. Last Sunday morning we packed tea and cookies for the trip south but thought we’d stop at one more seasonal lot that appeared to have a large selection and a big turnover. To our amazement (and my wife’s back’s relief), we spotted a seven-foot Fraser fir that had no holes and looked quite fresh. And, at $40, it was more than fairly priced.

The tree is now tied up in our side yard, its branches fully extended. It isn’t as wide as one we’d cut for ourselves, but I’ve looked at it from every angle and I can’t find a hole or a bad spot. On Friday, as is our custom, the tree will be decorated. And, unlike previous years’ trees, this one won’t need guy wires to prevent a cat-induced tree felling.

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