Choosing and cutting your Christmas tree

Illustrations by NICOLE ERNST

They always look shorter outdoors
Balsam furOne of my earliest Christmas memories is that of going out with my father to cut down an evergreen tree. We lived in Halifax at the time, so we had to drive well out of the city, then trudge farther on foot in search of the perfect tree. As I shivered, waist-deep in the snow, my father chopped it down. We dragged it back and tied it to the roof of our Ford Anglia - a peculiar sort of car sold in Halifax after the Second World War. When we got it home, this tree, like most, required trimming just to get it through the door and upright in the living room.

hese days, it's considered a polite practice (not too mention a legal requirement) to ask permission before cutting trees on someone else's land. That's one reason why I now bring my family to a "Choose and Cut" operator for our evergreen hunting.

Those with a more demanding lifestyle than mine have reduced this tradition to shopping at the local Christmas tree yard. Although the trees are good enough well in advance of Christmas Eve, the selection does eventually dwindle away.

For many families like mine, however, selecting a Christmas tree is meant to represent quality time together. If you want to try it out, then start by going directly to the grower. Select the tree you want and either cut it yourself or have someone from the grower's lot do it for you. There is far more involved in all of this than you might think, so if you do it, do it for the fun and the experience.

Choose a crisp, inviting December day, fill the car with gas and family, and drive to a country tree farm via the scenic back roads. Thousands of great Christmas trees may be growing on the lot - an abundance of choice. As well as experiencing these natural beauties, you may gain insight into a working culture in which people devote long hours to producing the finest evergreens in North America. This is an opportunity to learn how a tree is nurtured so that, after 10-12 years, it ends up as your Christmas tree of choice.

Selecting a Choose and Cut location involves a little investigative work before you hit the shunpike (or the turnpike). The standard of Christmas trees produced in this province is very high, so you won't necessarily find a great deal of difference between one lot and another. You can, however, ask a few questions to help narrow the field down a little.

1. If you want a species of tree other than a balsam fir, ask each grower before you head out on your excursion. Some people prefer a pine tree (red, white, or Scotch), but not all growers offer them.

2. Do they bale the tree for you? It's a lot easier to transport a baled fir or vexared pine (Vexar is a plastic netting put over the tree) than to carry one that is not wrapped.

3. Is there opportunity to hike along some of the roads and trails or do you have to stay near the car? You may even be able to take your bicycles along, and some growers now have trail maps and orienteering courses laid out for their customers.

4. Ask if there are snacks available. Again, some owners provide coffee and doughnuts, while others may offer a hot meal.

5. You might want to know if you may cut down your own tree. If you do, the grower will likely provide you with a handsaw, so be prepared for a little hard work.

6. \ Make sure of your directions. Have the grower fax a map to you, give you the name of the nearest community and the number of the road to follow, and describe relevant landmarks.

If you opt to Choose and Cut, remember to dress warmly, wear sensible footwear, take some rope to tie the tree onto the car, and don't forget a bit of padding to protect the paintwork.

Wherever you choose and cut your tree of beauty, you'll be sure it is as fresh as it possibly can be. You'll also notice the role Christmas trees play as an important part of the Nova Scotian way of life. If you're looking for a real "done-home" treat, take a trip to one of the many Christmas tree festivals, such as those held in New Ross, Tatamagouche or Musquodobit.

But remember the one basic rule of thumb when selecting a Christmas tree... they always look shorter outdoors!

*Michael Ernst is an outdoor educator. His Oakland Centre for Outdoor Education is located just outside of Mahone Bay

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Copyright New Media Services Inc. 2004. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications.