I became good friends with a fellow flight attendant after working together for a month. He lives in Minneapolis and during the first week of December he and his husband begin the holidays by driving miles into the country to a Christmas tree farm to cut their own tree. It is their yearly tradition going back years.
I was so romanticized by the concept that I wanted to take part in their tradition.
George is already up, an early 430am riser. He sets the kitchen counter with mugs of coffee and just-out-of-the-oven cinnamon rolls. “We are leaving by 8. If you need bigger jackets or extra gloves, they’re out on the foyer.”
He pours us two travel mugs of coffee while Zach and I get dressed.
It is a 2hour drive to Cambridge, Minnesota. Between periodic lulls of sleep and a stop at McDonalds for more coffee and a snack, we drive pass fields of snowy white fields, skeletal snow-capped trees, and frozen lakes and black rivers to the Christmas Tree farm.
I step outside from the warm and tranquil car. The bite to the air is stinging. “Its 28degrees!”
My breath crystalizes in a cloud of frozen steam. It is freezing! I stare around me at the frozen tundra. Snow covers everything. Not only that, it seeps into everything. My gloves feel meager. My leg hairs stick to my pants. My ankles feel a dull ache that I’m sure preclude the soreness I’ll feel later when my body finally thaws. Even though I am wearing leather boots, I slip and do a weird step-step-tap-step, arms pinwheeling, trying to keep my balance on this treacherous road. My ears already burn with frost.
Wolcyn Christmas Tree farm
Wrapping my scarf tighter around my neck we walk towards a large barn. A worker greets us. He smiles at my discomfort and waves to the shuttle that will take us out to the fields in the distance: a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer. It is a tetanus shot waiting to happen. Rusty rails groan as we grip the slippery metal onto the flat bed. The seats are blocks of frozen hay. Some of them are wrapped in burlap but are dark with water and frozen solid. “Hang on!” The driver says amiably as he starts the orange tractor. It yells in protest, grumbles to start. It lurches forward and we tumble in response.
it’s flippin’ freezing!
The cold hurts. It really hurts. It is a cold that penetrates the layers of clothes I am wearing. It is seeping into my butt. It seeps into my already frozen toes, even though I’m wearing two layers of socks. My fingers are covered in two layers of gloves, but there is not even a hint of warmth. I want to pull out my phone and take pictures, but can’t because not only are my fingers bulky with two pairs of gloves they are numb and unresponsive. I’m afraid to drop my phone it fall between the crack into the snow field we rumble pass.
“That lot yonder there be your choices. They are fraizer pines. I’ll be back in 15 to 20minutes.” He hands George a set of rusty, bent, almost fragile looking saws meant for cutting wood. Are they really supposed to cut down a tree, I can’t help but think.
We disembark. My feet step onto snow and instantly fall through inches, maybe even a foot, to the ground below. I didn’t think my feet could get any colder they did in that instant. Have you ever felt so cold that your bone’s ache? Oh boy, it is a pain that makes your teeth ache. I let out an involuntary gasp that everyone mistakes for aw at the scenery surrounding me. But, really, I am misery.
The tractor driver, rattles off and away, loud as a bunch of rocks tumbling down a mountain. There he goes leaving us in this silence, this cold wet silence, this freezing and shivering silence. The silence is heavy with isolation. There is no warmth here. Only blue solitary.
The snow around us is fresh. No one has stepped into this field, except for a few tracks that may be from deers or rabbits or birds. My pants are wet. My knees ache with a terrible throb.
George steps into the field leaving behind a trail. I bulldoze my way into the field of snow towards the line of pine trees. Despite the tremors wracking my body, I stand still in a lot of tree to admire the white glow around me. The landscape before me holds true to those picturesque paintings of magical Norwegian cottage towns.
An Incredible Snowscape
There is a brilliance to the scene that has nothing to do with the meager sunlight through the thin layer of high, gray clouds. As my boots step deep, almost up to my knees deep, into the snow, I see the contrasting freezing blues and whites of the reflected snow and dark black bark of the wet pine trees and the vibrant, wet green of the pine needles…there is magic here. For a few moments I lose interest in my frozen body. The magic of the landscape takes away the pain.
It smells incredible. Cold air stings the back of my throat, but it also has a hint of christmas tree pine and running water. As I get closer to a tree and literally stick my head in between its branches, I smell wet wood and mud and an overwhelming pine tree scent. I pull back and watch as snow powders down. There is a soft crunch as the larger chunks of snow plop onto the layer of snow on the ground. I begin to wander around the field of trees, touching this branch, touching that branch. There are a few dead flowers poking up out of the layer of snow on the ground.
Choosing the RIGHT Tree
George and David spend about an hour bickering about this tree or that. “No that’s too lumpy at top!” “no, that one is too skinny!” “No, that one has too much dead branches!” “Well, how about this one?” Silence. “Well?” Silence. “Are you even paying attention to me?!”
Zach follows them and gives his input when he can. It’s an endearing scene with all of them sizing up a tree like a prized cow. They lift branches, get on their knees to look under the branches, walking a path in the snow around the tree like a pack of hyenas. In fact, you can trace their steps by looking at the paths in the snow, like some weird murder scene.
I’m basically useless
I continue to wander off on my own. I lift a large square chuck of snow that settled onto a group of branches. It holds its shape as I carry it and throw it into the air. It disintegrates into powder that falls lazily to the ground. Bits of snow catch in my hair and down my neck, sending a deep chill throughout my body. I bend over and pick some powdery fluffy snow and eat it. I roll some snow into a ball and through it at a tree.
I return to the group. They are surrounded around a tree as if captured. “Are we taking this one?” They agree. The tree is strong. Its trunk is difficult for the men and Zach to cut through. “We hit a knot!” Sweaty, cursing, straining, aching, tiring…they cut the tree at the base at every possible angle they can. “Lean on it!” Three of us push our weight on to the tree. Grunting, panting, swearing… “I’ve never had so much trouble with a tree before!” Red face, veins bulging, glaring. “Ugh! Let’s get another tree!” Frustrating, irritated, mad. “We already worked too hard on this one!” Zach takes his turn—hack, hack, hack. “Yeah, that’s a knot.” “These saws are the worse! We used to be able to bring our electric saw,” “Oh yeah, these rusty, flimsy saws are way safer.” Kicking the tree, pushing the tree, pulling the tree.
Eventually it collapses. The men cut it down. We are more pissed off than rewarded.
“Finally!” Throwing the saws angrily onto the ground.
The Journey Back
We carry the tree through the snow field. Zach carries the saws. I am finally able to help. I carry the pointed tip of the tree while Georgie holds on to the bass. Our pants are wet. Georgie’s hands are covered in pine sap. I lead the way to the road where the tractor dropped us off.
It is a few minutes before we see the driver put-putting down a hill, a rambling beast. The rusty, orange tractor glares against the bright, white snow.
“Hey, yah!” We load up onto the tractor trailer. We slip and jostle onto the frozen hay. The beast roars to life.
“Hang on! I got to give her some steam. We are on a hill!” The cacophony of the blaring engine echos across the hushed landscape. The tractor makes its way along the path. The muddy, frozen road is riddled with pot holes and rivets. Even though my head strikes the bars of our caged-conveyance, the sight is beautiful. We pass tree fields in various stages of growth. “These have been here a few years. They are babies.” Finally we reach the end of the plantation and back at the barn house entrance.
The driver takes the tree from the flat bed, huffs it upon his shoulder, and places it on a “shaker.”
“A what?” I ask.
The driver turns the key of a machine that is connected to this platform. On this platform is a square box. He places the bottom-base of the tree trunk into the box. Then the entire tree shakes violently. “I’m doing this to shake out the dead branches and leaves.” Sure enough, brown pine needles and thin, dead branches fall to the ground, even a wet glob of spider cobwebs.
We eventually make our way into the large barn. It smells like cinnamon, all-spice, baking apples, and chai tea. We each have warm apple cider. We walk around knick-knacks, display tables of wares, and fun novelty toys.
The tree is placed onto the roof of the car and we drive away.
“Its our tradition to eat at Culver’s after tree picking.” I’ve never heard of Culver’s. It is a hamburger joint. The meat is super thin. All the their products are bought from local farms, and their claim to fame is frozen custard. Everything is delicious.
We leave Cambridge for home. We end the day with some pizza, singing Hymns, and cocktails.
I loved the experience. Yeah it was colder than hell, but I got to see where christmas trees come from. I fully appreciate the process of tree picking. It is a labor of love, tradition. Yeah we argued about this tree or that tree, irritated because we wanted to get going, but also acknowledging the fact that we had to get the right tree for the house. Once we cut it down, we are stuck with it.
So the decision, although long and wrought with second-guessing and nit-picking, ended up being what we were looking for. The pine needles are a penetrating green that you don’t forget. It is easy to see how such a tree became the symbol for renewal and hope. It is also easy to imagine how the superstitious of the ancient pass made these trees the center of worship. I mean, don’t we practically worship the trees now: they are the counterpoint of a holiday. They are garnished and decorated with lights and ornaments and topped with a Star or Angel. They are in fact on an altar, looked at with love and adoration. We sing hymns around it, we drink and surround the tree like the pagan worshipers of old.
So even though I dislike Christmas, I still understand the urge and need to continue a tradition marked with ancient history.
Until then, see yah, dear readers.