I am one of those people who refuses to acknowledge Christmas until the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers have been consumed. There is, however, one aspect of the holiday season that does get a jump start here on Rusty Metal Farm. At some point, usually around August, I start eyeballing potential Christmas trees during hikes with tiny farm dog Chiclet and the cats.
This tradition goes back decades to the first Christmas my late husband Patrick and I spent together. Walking the trails we’d spy a likely tree, commit its location to memory and then return at some point in December to cut it down and drag it home for decorating.
It all sounds very bucolic in a warm and fuzzy Norman Rockwell kind of way, does it not?
For the most part it is, until it isn’t.
For example, just because a tree is accessible and easy to find in late summer or early fall does not mean it will be in December after several northern Maine snow storms. I can’t count the number of years we’d trudge out on snowshoes, axes in hands in search of our chosen tree. A tree that somehow seemed so much farther from the house than it had months earlier. Once found, we’d work as a team cutting it down, trimming of excess branches and then — looking very much like Mr. and Mrs. Abominable Snowman thanks to all the snow that had been on tree falling on our heads and down the backs of our parkas — we’d take turns dragging it home.
After a few years of this, Patrick decided our system needed some tweaking. We’d still go out in the fall to scope out the right tree, but more often than not that tree ended up being between 20- to 40-feet tall. It was also one that Patrick deemed in need of removal as part of his ongoing land stewardship and tree-thinning work.
His final criterion was assuring the tree was not far from one of our farm or field roads. That way, he could use our farm tractor to drive as close as possible to the tree, take out his chainsaw, cut the tree down and cut off the top 8-feet for the Christmas tree. He’d then attach that section to the back of the tractor using chains and drag it back to the house.
Frankly, I think all of that was his favorite part of Christmas. Because when you are a Rusty Metal Farm gearhead, nothing says “Happy Holidays” like the smell of fresh balsam fir mingled with diesel fumes and chainsaw fuel.
After his passing in 2008, I backed away from the whole getting-my-own-tree tradition. Instead, I would spend holidays with friends and enjoy their decorations. My favorite was the tree decorated every year by my friend Kim — no balsam fir for her. Nope, she decorated her hot pepper plant. Because at Kim’s house, nothing said “Happy Holidays” like a spicy potted plant.
But several years ago I decided to bring the tradition back to Rusty Metal Farm. This was the year my friend Julie was here for Christmas, so I was able to enlist her help in choosing and bringing home the tree. Clever women that we are, we opted for a smallish tree next to the Rusty Metal Farm pond and an easy walk from the house.
It was a simple matter to cut down the tree — the trunk was just 2 inches or so in diameter — and carry it home. That’s where we discovered a small trunk may be easy to saw, but it’s way too small for a traditional tree stand.
So, we improvised. We set the trunk with some small branches still attached into a 1-quart Mason jar. Those branches steadied the tiny tree in the jar. We then put the jar into a 5-gallon bucket into which we had first dumped enough kitty litter to reach the top of the jar. That way, we figured, the jar and tree would not tip over.
But, just to be safe, after placing the bucket-and-jar stand with the tree on top of my unlit woodstove in the living room, we used baling twine to secure the whole set up to the stove pipe. Standing back to admire our work, we realized we had left no easy access for watering the tree.
Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and we were up for the challenge. In the end, we used a 3-foot section of rubber tubing we stuck into the jar and a funnel we put on the other end into which we poured water. Sure, it took two of us to water the tree, but it worked.
Did the whole thing look like Rube Goldberg meets Charlie Brown Christmas? You bet it did. And I know somewhere Patrick was laughing his ass off.
Since then there have been more tree hunts, Mason jars and an ever-refining watering system. Last year was perhaps the best. Julie was back and with her came her daughter and two grandchildren who were tickled to be part of Operation Rusty Metal Farm Christmas Tree.
Together the five of us trudged down the road to a small tree we had selected and, as the younger generations watched and helpfully snapped photographs, Julie and I waded through waste deep snow and cut down the tree. Once it was down and out of the deep snow, her grandson and granddaughter were more than happy to take turns carrying it home.
Then it was cider, hot chocolate, cookies, Christmas music and an evening of securing the tree in the now traditional bucket-and-jar stand and decorating. Christmas had indeed returned to Rusty Metal Farm in all its balsam-scented glory. Minus the diesel and chainsaw fumes.