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The joys of family tree-chopping persist after all these years.

Saws, Needles and Tears


The family ritual of cutting a Christmas tree always meant great anticipation for us kids and gritted teeth for our parents. They would load the van with rope, a saw, three kids and a drooling dog, and off we'd go to the farm. We'd wander through the wonderful wide expanses of spruce and fir and Norway pine, breaking off needles to smell. A happy family outing — until it came time to actually pick a tree.

"How 'bout this one? How 'bout this one?" we kids would yell, galloping in circles around our phlegmatic parents. Sometimes one of us would feel sorry for a bedraggled, gap-needled tree and demand that Mom and Dad adopt it. We liked fat, thick-trunked trees too — but anything that would take my father at least 20 minutes to saw through, lying on his belly on the frosted ground, was rejected. Every other one we kids chose was deemed too tall. Naturally, when you're only 4 feet high, it seems entirely possible that a 15-foot-tree will fit nicely into a room with an 8-foot ceiling.

Quite a few of these debates ended in tears. So my parents cleverly shut us up by using my brothers and me as tree markers. When they spotted a spruce with potential, they assigned a kid to stand by it while they continued to browse.

It was exciting at first. I felt important guarding the tree — what if some other family came along and chopped it before we got the chance? But then my parents' voices would recede, muffled by the rows of pines, until all I could hear were starlings screeching and the dog's distant bark. And then I'd get cold. And then I would start to wonder if my parents would ever come back, or if maybe they'd forgotten where I was … and I'd abandon the tree, sprinting to find them.

This would all happen in a span of about four minutes.

Now I hear people have a better way to mark prospective Christmas trees, by hanging on them CDs that flash in the sunlight. But even with kids becoming obsolete as tree markers, the family tradition of cut-your-own is going stronger than ever, tree growers say.

"There were a lot of people who came this year who said it was their first time," says Tony Brubaker, owner of Hanover Pines farm, about 20 miles north of Richmond. Stephanie and Tom Hicks, co-owners of Windy Knoll Farm in Mechanicsville, say they've heard the same thing.

Now, might that be because Gov. Gilmore recently dubbed December "Virginia Christmas Tree Month"?

Hard to say — none of the farmers had heard of the declaration. "Must be behind the times," Tom Hicks says. "We've been so buried here with the trees and all that."

But hey — the governor picked the right time of year, Hicks says. "This is the month for it." And "one more reminder couldn't hurt," Brubaker adds.

Despite the warm weather at the beginning of December which depressed sales, tree farmers say business is picking up now. Mildred Emerson says the trees on her Emerson Christmas Tree Farm in Chester are surprisingly green this year, and more lush-looking than she'd expected.

The warmth and dryness may have even contributed to cut-your-own sales, says Stephanie Hicks. Some people who bought trees from lots in the beginning of December find they turned brown and brittle a few weeks later, she says. So they come to tree farms for a second try, saying "I know this'll last me through Christmas."

Tom Hicks reports that the tree-height debate continues to rage, and many families get more inches than they'd planned on. "When they're in the field, the sky's kinda the ceiling," he says, so even 10-footers seem tiny.

Of course, all arguments could be avoided if families followed the official standards used to choose Virginia's champion trees: "foliage, density, uniformity, taper and marketability," says Marion Horsley at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Marketability? "Sort of how pretty it is," she explains.

Well, that's still subjective. But no matter how kids may whine and argue, "at least bring them out to something like this one time," Tom Hicks says. "You're kinda making memories."

The other day, Stephanie Hicks recalls, she was working behind the counter when an exasperated-looking woman came in, sat down and announced, "I'm letting the kids cut the tree." Apparently no one could agree, Hicks explains, so "she just said 'Y'all decide. I'm going in and waiting for you.'" The kids returned only minutes later, proudly dragging a tree.

Hey, no fair. My parents never gave me the hacksaw.

Probably just as well, or I might have tried to tackle a 45-foot cedar, like the one growing on Mildred Emerson's property. The funniest thing she's seen all season, she says, was "a little boy, he was probably about 4, that cried and cried because that was the Christmas tree he wanted."

I guess some things never

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