Spiders, missing branches, and joy

A holiday tale of one family’s adventure in cutting their own Christmas tree

Christmas tree

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Are you my Christmas tree? Though wild trees can be imperfect, there is something special about cutting your own.

Eric Stavney

About four years ago my family decided to get a real Christmas tree the old way—cutting it down ourselves. And I don’t mean at a Christmas tree farm either, but in a national forest.

The four of us, my wife and I and my “kids,” Carl and Linnea (16 and 14 respectively), eagerly packed ourselves into the car decked out in our hats, mittens, scarves, and heavy coats, and drove out of town, past the corner Christmas tree lots and the big box stores. But it was hardly 15 minutes into the ride when we realized our mistake and pulled over. There ensued a flurry of hats, mittens, scarves, and coats flying high over the back seat because we were all dying of heat exhaustion and the windows were fogging up. Somehow in our eagerness we forgot it would take an hour and a half to drive up to the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

We bought our $10 permit from the Verlot Ranger Station for a 12 foot-or-less tree—a real steal if you ask me. And there’s something noble about helping the U.S. Forest Service thin the forest, so the remaining trees can grow big without so much competition.

The map they gave us showed where different species could be cut, and up we went on winding forest roads, some with spectacular drop-offs just a few feet away, to the place where there was supposed to be a stand of Abies procera. Although we’ve had Douglas fir trees in the past, because they’re more affordable, we’d decided to be snobs that year and go for the best: noble fir.

We pulled off the road, spotted the flagging that delineated the cutting area and burst from the car scattering into the brush full of 8- to 12-foot trees. We wallowed to our knees in the snow, but barely noticed it. It soon became apparent that everyone had their own idea of what made the perfect tree; shouts of “This is IT!” and “No, you’ve GOT to see this one!” went on for 20 minutes. After a shouted conference, we decided to be gracious and visit each other’s tree, with Carl going first.

Carl shouted, “Okay people, it’s just right over here next to the clump of trees that…uh…” and his voice trailed off when he realized the futility of his directions. How were we going to find each other? Then someone hit on the idea of shaking the tree, and soon we found Carl by looking for the wiggling treetop leader he was shaking.

When we got there, we made appropriate non-committal remarks, like “Yes, there it is,” and “Uh, huh. Okay.” And that’s about what we all said visiting each other’s trees. But we finally did decide, and got down on hands and knees in the snow and pulled out our bow saw. We’ve cut down many small trees with the saw, and aside from getting needles down your neck and wet pants, cutting the tree is all of 15 strokes back and forth. Getting it out is a bit harder, especially if you don’t realize you have to carry it butt-end first. So we all grabbed on and went crashing out through the brush onto the road, where we dropped our tree.

Then there was this silence among us, because I think we all felt badly. We’d culled this furry green beast from the herd, joyfully rushed it out of the forest, and here now was its carcass. Then the silence continued when Linnea picked it up and twirled it slowly around, and we realized it was missing a bunch of branches on one side. It was kind of ugly, a Charlie Brown kind of Christmas tree. But there was no way we were going to kill another one. My wife broke the silence, finally, saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll just put that side towards the wall, and no one will know.” A gentle sigh of relief went all around.

We strapped the tree to the top of the car, running ropes through the side windows, through the passenger compartment, and out the other side, since I didn’t have a roof rack. I remember us arriving home with cricks in our necks from hunching over to keep the ropes across the ceiling from tangling in our hair. And this time we kept our hats and coats on because we couldn’t close the windows all the way.

At home we got the tree up into the living room, picked off the spiders and dead twigs, and put on ornaments, strings of Norwegian flags, and red lights. We put a bowl of risgrøt under it for the nisse, as is our tradition.

We stood there admiring it, until someone said, “Yes, this is a beautiful tree. However, next year…” And I cut them off. I said, “Wait. Let’s not talk about next year. This is our tree this year, and it gave its life for our Christmas. Think of that instead.”

The next year we went to a Christmas-tree lot in town, letting others cut the thing down and shield us from the long trip, the mess, and the mild guilt.

But we hold on to the memory of that frigid mountain air, the smell of the needles, and being surrounded by hundreds of living trees. Even though our tree was a bit ugly and full of spiders, what we remember more is how much it meant to have a tree we chose and cut ourselves.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784.4617.

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Eric Stavney

Eric Stavney is a graduate of the University of Washington Department of Scandinavian Studies and hosts the interviews and music podcast “Nordic on Tap” at NordicOnTap.podbean.com.