Growing up in Manhattan, my idea of the forest was the limited woods in the parks I played in. The lore of Christmas tree hunting was restricted. My father, sister, and I visited a vacant lot where a gentleman from Maine set up shop every year. This was in the days before massive trailer truckloads of trees made their way to the city after being cut in September or October. The product was uneven, and the entrepreneur was frequently selling from off his own acreage somewhere in the mysterious “North Woods.” The tree stand had been an empty waste place of weeds and broken brick the night before but became a transformed place through scent, texture, and color.
Our selection procedure was direct. You tried to get there as early as you could due to the failing light of December afternoons. Evaluating a tree in the near dark was a chancy proposition. You strolled the aisles of trees looking for likely candidates. Running your hands along spruce branches, you tried to determine if a tree seemed to have good color, was the right size and that the needles didn’t fall away with a light touch. If it made that cut, you took a more complete look. Out of the rack and onto the snow, already covered with a carpet of needles, came the tree. My father would give it a sharp bang on the ground while my sister and I watched to see how many needles the tree shed. If it dropped too many back into the rack it went. If it passed, we spun it in place and evaluated the thin spots, bushy areas, and overall shape. If it passed this test, it went onto the car and back to the apartment. End of the hunt.
Sometime towards the end of the 1960’s I was introduced to another form of tree hunt. I had accepted a job in an operating room in a small hospital in Maine. Just a day before Christmas Eve, the schedule of the operating room was slow. Only emergencies and a few scheduled procedures were in the offing. The operating room Director looked over at George and I ( the only two males on the staff) and detailed us to take the afternoon and hunt out a tree for the department party. I expected that George and I’d be gone no more than an hour. George had other ideas. Climbing into his pickup truck, he quickly pulled out a nearly frozen six-pack of Buds. He looked at me and said: “lets head over to my place, get some shotguns, and see if we come across anything interesting. ” OK, I said to agreeably, after all, I was on a hunt, not working, and there was free beer.
George had a large family. Everyone of age to hunt, if they liked to or not, got a deer ticket every season. Those with no particular love or aptitude for deer hunting passed them along to George, who ensured that his large family always had venison in the freezer. By the time we arrived at George’s house, the near-frozen beer had chilled us terribly. A few shots of peppermint schnapps were needed to defrost. By the time we hit the woods, we felt nice and warm. But, any deer in the woods easily eluded us. Around 3 PM we realized that we wouldn’t find anything to shoot at, our “buzz” was severely faded, and we had no Christmas tree. We began seriously hunting for spruces. The woods around us were mostly pine, and we had to walk a considerable piece to find spruces. Our diligence was rewarded, and we stumbled on a small copse of balsams. Any of them would be appropriate. George looked at me and indicated a nice seven-footer. We nodded to each other, but then simultaneously realized that our plan was flawed. We were about a mile from the truck. We had no saw. And had to be back at the hospital in about an hour.
Well, we got our tree and got back to the hospital in time. We both had hangovers from running through snow-covered woods with seven-foot spruce on our shoulders while coming down from a lousy peppermint schnapps high. Bea, the operating room supervisor, said nothing, as she eyed the tree, and took in the shredded stump. The long look she gave it told everything. “How did you boys cut this poor thing down? with your teeth?” George looked at her, grinned, and said, “No. Buckshot”.
The Quilted Woodlot
A few years after the “Shotgun Christmas,” I was introduced to another style of Christmas Tree hunt. My first wife’s family was from a small island on the Maine coast. It was their tradition to go to their wood lot and hunt out a tree. They were teetotalers, so I expected no Schnapps, and nobody in that family hunted, so shotguns were out. We walked into the woods equipped with snowshoes and bow saws. This family was quite particular about their tree. Only Balsams deserved consideration, and those had to be absolutely perfect. My family’s criteria for trees were out of place here. It seemed that every tree I pointed out had some fatal flaw I couldn’t see. This worked out to be an ongoing theme in the marriage, but I was not yet aware of it. In any case, the wood lot became quilted by our snowshoe tracks that afternoon. By dusk, it looked rather like one big spruce covered waffle.
At last, on the very edge of the lot, we spotted the perfect tree. Then came the final test: would Mommy like it? I was cold and wishing for some of George’s schnapps by this time, hell I’d of been happy to have a shotgun. I was listening to a discussion of whether or not Mommy would like the most perfect balsam in the world. After about forty minutes of this, the decision was made for hiking through the lot to the other side to view several other candidates. I decided to stay and watch the sun go down. As they traipsed away, I thought about my frozen feet, hands, and nose. I looked at the saw, I looked at the tree. I went to the perfect tree and started cutting. Sometime later they traipsed back through the lot and said: “We decided to take this one” as the tree fell. After that, I avoided spending Christmas with my in-laws.