I was raised a Catholic (Italian/Scots) and my partner Unitarian (Heinz-57). I blame quitting catechism classes at fifteen on Science Fiction and Fantasy–namely Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and Tolkien. Catholicism appeared pretty tame and suffocating after reading their wild tales.
I can’t quit the habit of Christmas and the tree, though. I think for me it’s more of a pagan rite these days–a midwinter ritual. We have no religious ornaments, though there is a medieval angel from the gift shop at the Cloisters in NYC. And lots of crab and Raven-themed ornaments from my partner’s family in Baltimore.
Our tree holds many of our travel memories as we try to buy ornaments in every place and country we visit.
NYC 9/11 Museum
Muir Wood, Cali
Tower of London
But the story of the tree, and, really, the tree is what has the most meaning for me at Christmas these days, has become centered on a small tree farm on Hogfat Hill. My partner has been going to the Stop and Chop since 1989 to cut down a tree the weekend after Thanksgiving. Since I moved here in 2003, we continued that tradition.
Sadly, the wife of the man who ran the farm on Hogfat Hill died, and then the man himself had a stroke that kept him wheelchair bound. But he was one of those guys you just can’t keep down. With family to help him, he still ran the Christmas tree farm aspect, even though it appeared to be falling down in places. A great big barn had piles of faded Christmas decorations from decades past. (Frugal Yankees through nothing away.) A smaller building beside the barn housed an extensive train set that ran around a huge landscape and kept the man in the wheelchair out of the cold. Everyone went in to see and talk to him. Kids sledded outside and around while their parents visited.
We always tried to top our tree from the year before—in height or circumference.
As more years passed, we’d go to get our tree and a nephew or a grandson of the tree farmer would help us get it bound up and placed on top of the car. Then we’d go in and talk to the old farmer himself sitting by the woodstove, the big farmhouse closed down around him to just the kitchen and the living room, with dogs and caretakers coming in and out. Man, he loved to talk.
The last time we went for our tree, no one was there, and everything shut down. We were devastated. My partner more than me, as he’d written about the man for a country life magazine a decade ago. We didn’t know how his story ended.
We went to another tree farm, a new one with trees that had just reached maturity. We took our hacksaw and trooped into the wood lots, none too happy to have to make a new tradition with a new tree farmer. And the trees weren’t right! They’d been trimmed and trained into perfect Christmas tree shapes like from a cookie cutter. Neither one of us is very tall, and there was hardly a single tree that was bigger than us.
The old tree farmer hadn’t been able to get out and trim his trees and his kids and grandkids weren’t interested in the amount of work that went into the place. Yet that suited us fine–his trees were slightly wild and big-hipped or rangy and tall and bringing that beautiful bit of nature in–yes, I always feel bad but it’s that or no tree at all. No artificial tree for Christmas. There’s nothing like tramping through early winter snow, woodsmoke in the air, soft and low mountains looming in the distance. Families came in the summer and picked out their tree, leaving little yellow flags behind. It’s always a bit like a labyrinth trying to find that perfect tree, then finding you’re way back out.
I remember going to tree lots as a kid because we lived in the suburbs, then mom wanted an artificial tree because it was less of a hassle.
Last year, my partner said he wanted to drive by Stop and Chop once more before checking out the other area tree farms. Lo and behold, the driveway was filled with trucks and kids and dogs and sleds with Christmas trees getting pulled up the hill. Some distant relatives had been tapped to work through the season, and we learned that the old tree farmer was happy and safe in a veterans’ home. One of the relatives gave us a business card with the man’s mailing address to send him a card, so we did. And got a damn good tree, too.
This year we did the same thing, took a drive over the mountain to Hogfat Hill with fingers crossed. A young woman met us in the driveway, on her way to buy another goat, she said, and if we were here for a tree, her husband would take care of us. They’d bought the farm and though they didn’t want to stay in the tree farm business, they were going to keep selling the trees until they were done, which will likely be soon.
Yeah, but, you know we’ll be taking that drive over to Hogfat Hill one more time…just in case they change their minds…:D