We’re between major holidays, and now that I’ve overshot my yearly quota for digesting pumpkin-flavored things — and regained the power to stand upright — it’s time for one of my favorite Christmas traditions: listening to “Christmas Shoes” and Hanson’s “Everybody Knows the Clause” simultaneously, on repeat.
No, not that.
But, in all seriousness, it’s about this time of year that my family will bundle up, venture out into the Michigan cold and head for a Kalamazoo County choose-and-cut or the Rawson’s tree farm or some place thirty minutes down the highway that advertises “Old-fashioned fun!” on a sign featuring a chubby boy holding a six-foot ripsaw. And it’ll be there that we’ll participate in the annual ritual, the gist of which is defoliating an evergreen and achieving serious bodily injury so that we can then erect the shedding, dirty, sappy, half-living tree inside our home — the same place we keep electronics and dinner plates — trying to keep it alive as long as possible in a plastic green tree stand.
Cutting down a Christmas tree is something of a rite of passage where I come from. It’s a family affair, and often becomes an all-afternoon event filled with apple cider, doughnuts, tractor rides, wreathes and lots and lots of sap.
To my enormous sadness, I think I’m going to miss out on the cutting this year, because I’m across the lake and because I live in a city that might very well arrest me if ever it caught me wielding a saw near its greenery — or anywhere, for that matter.
So, to make up for it, I thought I’d relay the experience here, in hopes of reliving part of the glory myself and of passing on the inspiration to those of you stuck in the life-rut that is artificial trees.
* * *
“So, let’s go smaller this year,” your mother says the morning before. “Maybe a nice eight-footer? Yes, maybe eight.”
“Maybe,” your father says, already knowing nothing short of twelve will do.
“Eight will be good. You remember what happened last year.”
“Oh, yes,” your father will say, choosing to remember nothing of the fiascos of Christmas Past. He’ll disappear into the basement and come back with yards of rope and bungee cords, a ripsaw, two hacksaws, a hatchet and his pocketknife (because you never know).
You will bring your hacksaw, too, and your brothers will unsheathe whatever sharp things they can find — steak knives, if necessary — because a Michigan pine is something wild, something strong. A Michigan pine is the closest thing to an Ent outside of Middle Earth. It is crafty; it will fight back. And though it must be conquered, it is due a certain level of dignity.
And once armed and braced to your duty, you’ll hop in the largest vehicle you have — because a Michigan pine can annihilate a sedan — and drive, eyes wide, to the harvest.
You have been waiting all year for this.
* * *
Once you’ve completed the necessary U-turns and gone down the proper dirt roads, a man named Buck who wears steel-toed boots and flannel even though it is 10 degrees out, will ask what you’re looking for: “We got white pine and jack pine over here,” he’ll point to an indistinct circle on a useless map, “and there’s red pine, scot pine, white spruce and black spruce over here.” His leather finger will move confusedly to a place on the map, which looks as though it may be from the 1600s, may actually be an ultrasound. “Austrian pines and Norway spruce, here. Balsam firs, here. Douglas firs, tamaracks, here.”
“Haven’t we got any Christmas trees, Buck?” a bearded man in long underwear will call from a shed.
“What trees,” Buck will say, unfamiliar with humor, then shake his fist and hurl a snowball toward the shanty.
“We’ll just take a look around,” your father will say, which was inevitable, but asking Buck and surveying a map of, quite possibly, a lakebed, is part of the experience.
You drive until your mother says, “Here.”
Then you split up, set out on foot on an expedition reminiscent of Shackleton’s trip to the South Pole, walk every inch of the fifteen acre farm and lose track of where you’ve left the van. All the while you are looking opportunely at trees. Lush trees. Green and blue and smoky. Shrouded with snow, silhouetted in gray Michigan sky.
After a long time of being lost in Narnia, you rendezvous at the farthest possible point from where you think the van is.
“I saw a big, even spruce,” you say. “There’s a nice, narrow fir eight miles that way,” says your sister. “I passed the perfect one down that row. Very full. Very tall,” says your brother.
“Not too tall, I hope,” says your mother.
“Of course not. Just right.”
You eye each other auspiciously.
“I’d like to see the fir,” your mother says.
You try to retrace steps through the snow, but of course you cannot find it. You knew once, but apparently had forgotten that one conifer looks generally like the next, especially when you’re approaching it from varying angles. Maybe it went into hiding, maybe it sprouted legs and walked away; you wouldn’t put it past it. Whatever the case, the narrow fir escaped for another year.
“How about the spruce, then?”
It’s another hour of searching before you stumble across the spruce — at least, you think it’s the right spruce. But whatever; it’s getting dark and your saws are eager and this one looks good enough.
Only, the moment you get up close to it, forming a perimeter like Whos charged with quality-control, a Paul Bunyan-looking fellow decides he wants this particular tree. He pulls a two-man saw out of his pocket and fells the thing by himself, then shoulders it and walks away like nothing happened. This is Michigan, remember.
It’s dropped below zero and you really are ready to cut something down now, so your mother agrees to look at the not-too-tall tree that turns out to be a “way-too-tall” blue spruce.
* * *
After discussing how it will look in the family room and seriously underestimating its height — “Stand next to it; it’s three times as tall as you.” “It’ll only be ten feet once we cut it down.” — you haul out the hatchet and assemble the saws.
This tree knows what is happening to it. It does not like it. It has the faint idea of murder in its bark. This tree will give anyone who comes close to it puncture wounds and arm-length gashes.
You take turns at the base, very alert, very cautious. Saw and cut and saw. Saw. Hack. Cut. Saw. Those who aren’t sawing watch from a distance, wary the tree might lash out or barrage the temporary lumberjack with pinecones.
It is only a few minutes before you are bleeding. Each of you has sap in places you didn’t know sap could go, sinuses and ear canals and, magically, voice boxes — every year the discovery seems fresh that sap can teleport. Three-inch pine skewers protrude from hand and face like acupuncture.
Even though two people are literally inside the pine tree, swallowed up in order to hold the trunk so it doesn’t fall, it will fall anyway, probably on whoever is cutting. There will be lots of direction-shouting and foolish “Lemme at it”s. There will be at least two broken hacksaws and one passerby who screams “Timber!” so loud that the cutter will hit his head on a bough. There will be some “How will we ever fit this through the door?” and “Why did you let it fall on you?” This will make it all worth it.
Once the tree is finally down, someone will say, “Wait, there’s the fir I was talking about, right there,” or “Is that a coyote den underneath?” Then you will try to relocate the van in the dark. It will be four miles away, and you will trip over every snow-covered stump and fall into lots of tractor ruts on the way to it.
Your wrists will be frozen, so it will take a long time to hoist the tree onto the car. It will roll off the other side several times before you get it balanced. Your fingers are numb, so it will take a long time to tie it down with the rope and bungee cords, which, as it turns out, are about as good as unraveled yarn because the bark of Christmas trees past has rubbed them down to almost nothing. (You would be better off tying it with one-ply toilet paper, but the farm is fresh out.) The tree will roll off several more times, forcing you to walk beside the van, two on each side to keep it balanced, as your mother drives it toward the front of the farm.
“What happened to you guys?” Buck will say.
“You got the thing facing the wrong direction,” says the guy in long underwear. And then more helpfully, “We got Band-Aids in the shed.”
Your father hands Buck the agreed upon sum; way more than you paid last year because, well, the economy, says Buck.
“Merry Christmas!” says Buck, counting. “See you next year!”
* * *
It will take three times as long to drive home as it did to come because you will have to pull over six times to readjust the tree, making sure it doesn’t fly off and smash the car that dares draft behind us. Several branches will fall off, along with lots of needles, so when you finally get home you will be unsure whether this is in fact the same tree or if it’s been replaced by the one from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
The tree will not fit in the front door, so you’ll go through the slider. It won’t fit through the slider either, but you will make it fit through the slider.
Pictures will be knocked off of walls, sap — unlimited in supply — will get on the carpet and in eyes, pine needles will fall everywhere — including inside of electrical sockets — the dog will go crazy. There will be an hours-long ordeal of trying not only to fit the tree into the treestand, but to get it angled at as close to 90 degrees as possible. It will become apparent that you’ve terribly misjudged the height. It’s actually even taller than last year. Something like eighteen feet. So tall that you will not be able to put a tree topper on without falling into the branches, but you’ll do it anyway. Tall enough that the top third of the tree will have a total of five ornaments; the bottom will have eighty-nine.
You will say the things you have said every year ever. Things like: “Next year, we really should put the lights on before we stand the tree up;” and “This tree is so big it’s actually impossible to walk through the hall anymore;” and “How many years have we been using these candy canes?”
And your mother will wipe sap from her eyes and say how pretty it looks. You’ll fail to mention the complete lack of branches for about three square feet on the other side, because tinsel.
And she’ll say, “We really should get a smaller tree next year.”
“Yeah, maybe,” you’ll all agree. “Maybe.”
* * *
So, the estimate for Christmas tree 2014: 20 feet minimum.
For further explication of Christmas fun, to find out why last year’s light strings have no chance of working this year and why Christmas tree stands want you dead, read Deck the Halls in Bill Bryson’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away.”