Because our neck of the woods includes actual woods, it’s a tradition for many people to cut their own Christmas trees. (And where did that expression come from, anyway? Why isn’t it the “head of the woods” or the “heart of the woods” or even the “left elbow of the woods”? According to informed sources, aka Google, this phrase apparently came to be used for a small local area because “neck” was a term for a narrow strip of woods. Which, really, could just as well be called an “elbow.”)
But never mind that. In this part of the world, for a mere ten bucks, you can get a permit from the Forest Service to go out to the Black Hills National Forest and get a tree. This involves finding the perfect tree, cutting it down (unless you’re Paul Bunyan, a tree saw is probably safer than an ax), and hauling it home. (Don’t forget the rope or straps to tie it to the top of the car or secure it in the back of the pickup. Trees have been known to escape.)
These tree-cutting expeditions, of course, are perfect opportunities for spirited family discussions about exactly what constitutes the “perfect” tree. Should it be spruce or pine? Slender or wide? Tall enough to touch the ceiling, or short enough for a kindergartener to put the star on the top?
For some people, little details like symmetry of the branches and uprightness of the trunk seem to matter a great deal. Others (yes, family and friends, you know who I am) just take a quick look and decide, “if it’s good enough for Charlie Brown, it’s good enough for me.”
Not naming any names here, but it’s been my observation over the years that there are two ways to prevail when it comes to picking out the perfect tree. One is to be in possession of the saw, which gives you the opportunity to say, “This one, right?” and start cutting it down before anyone has a chance to disagree. The other is to be the person who cares the most. The rest of the family will eventually realize that letting you choose the tree is the easiest and fastest way to get back to the hot cocoa and cookies waiting in the car.
Then, of course, there is the matter of putting up the tree once you get it home. This is when you discover bare spots, bent branches, delicate skunk-evoking aromas, and other little flaws that weren’t obvious out there in the woods. And nobody has ever satisfactorily explained why a tree looks so much bigger in the living room than it does in the forest.
For some people, apparently, a Christmas tree is an opportunity to create a perfect display of color-coordinated and carefully placed ornaments that complement the rest of the home’s seasonal decor. For decorating-challenged observers like me, the result can inspire awe. What it does not inspire is a wish to go and do likewise. Even if I’m tempted for a moment, I know better than to try the same thing at home.
For others, decorating the tree is about digging out ornaments that are valuable for emotional rather than esthetic reasons. About the years when most of the decorations hang in erratic clusters at a two-year-old’s eye level, or the times when a teenager is suddenly so tall he doesn’t need a stepstool to put the star on top of the tree.
Over the years, in our family, tree-cutting experiences have ranged from multi-vehicle expeditions with friends, to snowy family picnics, to quick grab-the-closest-tree trips in freezing weather. We’ve gotten stuck in the snow, hiked through the woods on mild fall-like days, and chosen trees that ranged from beautiful to downright scrawny.
This year, for example, I voted for a tabletop sized tree. The one we brought home was petite enough that we briefly considered asking for a rebate of half the cost of our Christmas tree permit. It now stands—all 33 inches of it—upright and very nearly straight in a flower pot filled with rocks. It is decorated with nothing but one string of lights.
And it’s perfect. Just like all the other trees we’ve cut over the years. Because, of course, the perfect Christmas tree isn’t really about the tree.