One of the best old-fashioned Christmas experiences is trudging off into the forest, cutting down your own Christmas tree and hauling it out. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you park on the side of a country road, then scramble off into the woods in search of your ideal tree. You could get shot. Or at least fined.
Still, there’s something primal to me about this endeavour. Perhaps because it propels me back to one Christmas when I was a boy of 10 or 12. Plastic Christmas trees were all the rage; buy it once and use it year after year. No hassle. Flame retardant. My parents jumped right on that bandwagon, along with millions of others…except they didn’t consult with me first. When I saw the box, I was outraged. Their look of pride with this clever purchase faded quickly to one of confusion as they took in my negative response.
Clearly they didn’t understand that the Christmas tree was like a keystone to me…if you cheapen that, you cheapen the whole holiday. I needed to show them. So I bundled up — I grew up in New England and it was December with 6 – 8 inches of snow on the ground — grabbed a bow saw and a hatchet, then headed into the woods at the head of the street. I wandered all through those woods looking for the perfect tree.
I found lots of evergreens, but mostly just scraggly pines. I was tired and cold and emotionally spent. I couldn’t believe I was going to have to accept defeat and that cheesy plastic Christmas thing that was not a tree. Head hanging in defeat, feet dragging as if they were tied to cement blocks, I stepped into a small meadow lit up with sunlight. Lifting my head to get my bearings, squinting at the sudden brightness, I saw a magnificent vision directly ahead, maybe 25 feet away.
The. Perfect. Tree. Except that it was 35 – 40 feet tall. I remember wondering, Where are your children?…How did you end up here all alone? I searched the whole area for signs of its younger relatives, to no avail. I was faced with a moral dilemma. I didn’t want to permanently deface this perfect specimen. Nor did I want to trudge home defeated, to be mocked by an artificial tree.
Feeling as though I debated these choices sufficiently for the conscience of a 10 or 12 year old, I climbed up and cut the top 8 feet off. When I climbed down and looked back at the tree, it didn’t look nearly as majestic. I felt bad, kind of selfish. Then I looked at my prize…the perfect Christmas tree. I should have brought a sled. Crap.
So I dragged the tree through the woods, across the snow. Cold and exhausted even before starting the trek home made it a long, arduous journey. As soon as I reached the house, I stood my perfect specimen upright…ready to savor the fruits of my labor. Except the side that had been dragging across the snow was gone. Nothing but scraggly bare branches. Not 1 needle. Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree would have felt bad for this sorry looking backside. I was devastated. Briefly. Because I had a thought.
Only one side of the tree was ruined…the rest was as perfect as ever. So I sold my parents on the idea of putting the tree in a corner where the backside would be hidden. Mangled though it was, it turned out beautiful and smelled incredible. The plastic, artificial tree? It kept the mothballs company in the attic.
Where can you cut down a Christmas tree in a forest? How about a National Forest? Seriously. But don’t just wander into a National Forest and cut down a tree. The National Forest Foundation says there are permits available for $5 and $10 through your local USDA Forest Service. Firs are the ones you want, according to the NFF Tree Guide. PS: You may need a 4 wheel drive vehicle.
Ocala National Forest Christmas trees.
Photo: By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons