Our family has just never been very good at Christmas trees. And it’s my fault. It sounds simple, I know. From Remembrance Day to Christmas Eve parking lots are filled with the lingering scents of pine and spruce.
Why is it hard to find just one?
Frankly, it’s because I have insisted on the true Christmas tree experience: a real Christmas tree gloriously picked from my family land.
We always had a real tree growing up, so you can imagine my disappointment when, on our first Christmas together, my wife set up a tacky contraption made of coat hangers and tinsel. I know. Sometimes you have to compromise.
When we lived in Japan later on, Canadian spruce was surprisingly hard to find. Rather than repeat our first abomination, we borrowed a fair imitation of a Christmas tree. But it wasn’t enough. It didn’t feel like Christmas with a plastic tree, so I finally bought plane tickets home from Japan, and we spent the holidays with kith and kin and Christmas kindling.
You can’t always fly to a forest. Sometimes you just have to make due. The Christmas we spent in Calgary with my mother we had a great tree from one of those mall parking lots. True, we stole it from an abandoned lot on Christmas Eve, shoving it into the trunk of my mother’s Sebring and hoping no one was watching as we fled. It was a beautiful tree, though, and stayed fresh well into the New Year.
Another year, money was tight when I was at grad school in Vancouver. We couldn’t afford tree lot prices and forests were scarce downtown. So we waited until the three Italian brothers who sold Quebec trees on the corner were ready to pack up and go home.
Appealing to their sense of charity—and their instinct not to lose a sale late in the game—we got a somewhat ragged blue spruce for a great price. But the next year they sold out of trees early. Faced with the prospect of having nothing, I negotiated. For fifteen bucks he let me have a discarded base sawed off of a very tall tree and as many branches as we could carry. Back to the apartment I drilled holes in the trunk to splice in branches, trying my best to make this rejected base look like a tree fit for my son’s first Christmas.
It was close, but the top was still flat enough to put presents on.
As I said, we haven’t always been good at Christmas trees.
Desperate to do better as a prodigal son returning to Prince Edward Island in time for my son’s second Christmas, I wanted the whole experience: the Dickieson family Christmas tree found on our family tree lot. I remember as a child trudging into those St. Patrick’s woods, knee-deep in snow, looking for the perfect Christmas tree. It always seemed that the one my father picked was too small, but back home in our living room it was full and green and ready to be propped up by Santa’s generous bounty.
My son was only thirteen months old, so I could get the lay of the wood this year and hopefully spot some trees for future years.
Unlike Clarke Griswald, I remembered my axe.
My wife and I trudged into the ankle-deep snow looking for that magical tree. We never found it. There were great birches and a few maples, but of the coniferous trees—the ones best for lore-filled Christmas evenings—the pickings were scarce. I finally found a tree that would have made Charlie Brown look down his cartoon nose at us, and our first PEI Christmas as a three-person family was spent next to this leprous monstrosity.
From there it got worse.
I wanted to impress my son, now old enough to notice, so the next year I brought home two pathetic trees from the family woods and I tied them together with green twine. I really did. Once it was fully decorated, it didn’t look too bad, as long as you didn’t look too closely.
My son’s fourth Christmas was just as bad. With Nicolas in tow trudging through the muddy woods in his rubber boots, I found a fair tree—nothing an Italian brother would sell, but good enough for the new low standards of the Dickieson family Christmas tree. But within a week, all the needles fell off. We had to borrow a shop vac from work to remove the mounds of needles that covered the Christmas gifts.
You shouldn’t be able to see the lights on the far side of a Christmas tree.
It’s just wrong.
Finally, I gave up. We had a new home, and my son was starting to remember Christmas as the season of sickly spruces and shop vacs. Sacrificing my personal pride and abandoning the dream of finding the Dickieson family Christmas tree in the same land my father had found our childhood trees, we decided to join some friends as they went to … gasp … buy a tree at full price.
Begrudgingly, I drove our warmly-dressed family out to Crooked Creek Farm. I felt like I was selling out. To me, choosing a perfectly groomed tree from a lineup was miles from a true Christmas experience.
The parking lot was filled with bundled up families loading tightly bound infants into sleds as they headed into the woods. Men were gathered around minivans and SUVs arguing about how best to strap a tree to the roof of their vehicles, while women and children gathered in a little shack warming fingers on a gas heater and enjoying cookies and cider. It was truly a festive atmosphere.
We met our friends, and the kids bounded off into the field, calling back for us to follow. The dry snow crunched beneath our boots as we walked through the scattered forest of lovely trees. After great deliberation we found it—not the perfect tree, but far better than any of the trees of my childhood. We snapped pictures, felled the great tree, and instead of trudging the long acres back to the car, we hitched a ride on an ATV. And as us guys tried to look like we knew what we were doing strapping the trees to our roofs, the children huddled around chocolate chip cookies and warm cider.
It’s hard to admit, but the whole thing was wonderful.
We have a great tree! We can’t see the lights in the back, and the needles have stayed strong. There is no plastic or coat hangers or bare patches, and no need to drill holes to add branches. Together we found the Dickieson family Christmas tree—it just happened to come from a tree farm (I still can’t call it a “lot”). And, best of all, our son got the experience of felling just the right one.
All the while I was trying to create the best Christmas tree experience, I was missing something. To use a well-time cliché, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
The reality is my son doesn’t care about the authenticity of the tree. For him, the Charlie Brown trees or lot trees are just as magical as the one tied to the roof of our car. Looking back, that first Christmas as a couple was really quite lovely. And the improvised and stolen trees of our varied history make up the legend that is the Dickieson family Christmas.
I suppose traditions are what we make of them, if we can open up our expectations and give them space to grow.
“The Dickieson Family Christmas Tree” was first printed in Maritime Family Magazine in 2012. It was part of a fatherhood column I wrote, and fodder for my slowly evolving nonfiction book, Fatherness.
It turns out that Crooked Creek Farm was where my grandmother used to play when she was a little girl in the 1920s. This year, the Mathesons at Crooked Creek ran out of Christmas trees, so we found a new family farm where we could hunt down our tree. In a flurry of snowballs after the first winter snow, we cut down a full and misshapen spruce that fills our living room with all the Christmas smells and lights. There was fudge instead of cookies, but it was a lovely day.