Oh, Tannenbaum

The cherished tradition of hunting for the “real” Christmas tree pits holiday fantasy against reality.

| January 2019

  • Sometimes our success in finding a natural tree hasn’t been too good. Here, we have one that looks almost like the scraggly tree in the TV program A Charlie Brown Christmas.
    Photo by Clell G. Ballard
  • The author with his tree saw, walking through the usual amount of snow to fall before Christmas in this area.
    Photo by Clell Ballard
  • In the years when the hunt for a tree took place before significant snow had fallen, all five children loved to go on the hunt. Our little green Jeep is just visible far down the steep hillside in the valley.
    Photo by Clell Ballard
  • Our rare World War II military M7 snow tractor, built by Allis-Chalmers, is sometimes used to get us far enough in the hills to get Christmas trees. Here we have three trees on top, one for us, one for my parents and one for my in-laws.
    Photo by Clell G. Ballard
  • Deep snow in the forest. December sometimes brings a lot of snow, making the hunt for a tree much more difficult.
    Photo by Clell G. Ballard

As early as October, television and social media start aiming commercials and advertisements at those who want to buy a Christmas tree. But you won’t see actual living trees (or trees that used to be living) advertised.

Instead, you’ll see beautiful trees, almost always professionally decorated, that are commercially produced. The emphasis of the sales pitch is that the product shown is just like a real evergreen. Thus, if that kind of artificial tree is purchased, no one will ever know it isn’t “real.”

Such trees often come complete with lights, so all you have to do is add ornaments. These “almost real” trees are very expensive. Of course, over an extended period, that cost can be pro-rated, so the yearly cost is not prohibitive. Some of the most expensive artificial trees are treated to have an aroma similar to that of a live evergreen, not that it will last many years. Other than a storage issue, what more could a person want? But let’s face it: They are fake!

Before those of us who don’t buy manufactured holiday trees begin to feel superior, we have to step back and realize that we, too, have been sucked into the commercial Christmas tree system. In 2017, more than 27 million formerly living Christmas trees were grown to be decorations.



The Search for a “Real” Tree

This country has nearly 13,000 Christmas tree farms operating on more than 300,000 acres; most are found in cooler climates. Careful planting, cultivating and care result in beautiful living trees that look and smell real. The average 7-foot tree is a 12-year-old plant. The good news is three seedlings are planted for every mature tree cut, so tree farming is a self-sustaining industry.

In the last few decades, large machines have been developed to shape trees to a perfect taper, and the trees are usually tightly bound to prevent damage in transit. The end of the year is a bonanza for Christmas tree farm owners. For the average person, buying a beautiful tree down at the corner lot, taking it home and decorating it is part of what Christmas is all about.

If the term “real” is applied to Christmas trees as it is now popularly applied to many other objects, even the beautiful fresh evergreen we place in our living rooms every holiday isn’t. You see, evergreen trees in nature are not at all like what we are used to buying today. Yes, they are green, have needles and smell good. But beautifully shaped they are not. For whatever reason, finding a nearly perfectly shaped tree in the wild is basically impossible. The old-fashioned process, where people go out into the wild and cut a Christmas tree, is still possible in some areas, but self-harvested trees are never perfectly shaped.      

Challenges of the Hunt

Those of us in isolated mountainous areas of America have always cut our own Christmas trees. Some of us have the advantage of being related to property owners who have evergreens growing on extensive land holdings. Getting permission from them is simple, because allowing one or two trees to be cut every year is not a problem.

Weather is the deciding factor. At our high elevation, winter sometimes comes early and snow is deep enough that actually walking in the hills in search of a tree is next to impossible. In other years, the arrival of snow comes much later, so walking on dry ground is possible (but is never easy on steep hillsides).

Take this advice from an experienced tree hunter: The tree you found that looked good from a distance often ends up, under close examination, being misshapen and scraggly, but another tree, one quite a distance away, looks better. It isn’t!  You will find, after struggling to get to it, that it too looks just as bad as the earlier one. It almost always happens that way. After hours and hours of extreme physical effort, your standards for an acceptable tree evolve and you end up taking home one that is just “okay.”

Dealing With Imperfection

Only one time did my wife and I find what we considered to be a nearly perfect tree. We had waited until almost Christmas to go tree hunting and the temperature was 15 degrees below zero as we left home. Ankle-deep snow made walking possible, so we ended up going quite a long way from where we parked our vehicle. When that “perfect tree” was cut, we had to drag it a long distance back to our Jeep. We tied it on, got in where the heater kept us fairly warm and headed for home.

When we unloaded the tree, we were shocked to discover we only had a half of a tree. Since the cold temperature was so extreme, even though there was snow on the ground the whole way we drug the tree, the needles on that side all fell off. We were left with just bare branches.

All was not lost, however. Having our whole lives had far-from-uniform “real” natural trees, we had learned that flat sides without bushy branches made it possible to fit a tree closer to the wall. Then, when the lights were strung and ornaments placed, you could not tell the tree was misshapen.

In that Christmas trees are used for a short time and then discarded or stored, what brightens a person’s home during the holidays is just a matter of personal choice. What difference does it make if yours is commercially made, bought off of a corner lot or hand-cut? The enjoyment of the season is what is important. After all, some frontier families back in the 1800s used tumbleweeds for Christmas trees. Their holidays were just as festive as ours. FC




A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.


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