O CHRISTMAS TREE Going out on a limb to find that perfect evergreen


A few years ago, the holidays were more complicated. My time was consumed by children's activities: school concerts, class parties, cookie decorating, visits to Santa, and breaking up fights over whose turn it was to hold the Sears "wish book." Back then, picking out the Christmas tree was incidental. If it was green and wider at the bottom than the top, I was satisfied.

Now our kids are grown and I have more time to concentrate on finding the perfect tree. Two years ago we went to a tree farm to cut our own tree. We chose the first one we saw; however, seeing was difficult because it was 11 degrees out, windy, and snowing ice pellets. We raced to the closest tree, declared it perfect, cut it and got back in the car, fast, before we froze to death.

But last year, when we returned to the same place on a balmy December Sunday, selecting a tree was not so easy. I walked between the trees, looking and frowning, along with dozens of other people who were also having a difficult time choosing. One very large, multi-generational group had numbered the trees and tried to select by vote: OK, how many like No. 6? Who likes No. 13? What about No. 28?

The man who monitored the vote and carried the handsaw advised us never to go tree shopping with more than two people. It was 3 o'clock. The voting had started at noon . . . on the previous day.

But a two-person tree-selection committee ensures neither harmony nor speed. There were many couples, like us, doing more walking than tree sawing. I couldn't believe these were the same trees from the year before, when we were so quick to choose. I heard other people saying the same thing, then I realized why. The previous year's weekends were freezing and miserable. A shopper's tree-blemish tolerance expands as the mercury dips. That gaping hole near the top of a crooked tree is hardly noticeable when your nose hairs are frozen. And a tree with no upper branches will do just fine when the temperature plus windchill equals a minus number.

But in mild weather, the fussy half of a two-person tree-selection committee becomes even fussier. And if the couple do find the perfect tree, the fussy one will insist they continue looking, just in case there's a more perfect tree somewhere on a distant acre. I turned down perfectly shaped trees because of their color, and perfectly colored trees because of their shape. One tree, both perfectly colored and shaped, was nixed because it looked perfectly artificial.

Why is picking out a tree so complicated, my husband asked, echoing the question other men asked other women, who, like me, assumed the question was rhetorical and ignored it. We perfectionists roamed between trees, followed dangerously close by tight-lipped Grinches who slapped rusty handsaws against their thighs, while glaring at the exposed backs of our fragile, trunklike necks.

Finally, near dark, I selected a tree. My husband crawled under it and sawed, and cursed, and sawed, telling me to guide the tree so it fell to the north. North? There I was, all turned around in the middle of a tree forest in the middle of the country, without a map and he expects me to know where north is.

Nearby, a woman was patiently defining perfect tree for her husband, who mistakenly thought he had finally found one. He was crying. I asked her where north was. While we were deciding, the tree fell. South. Her husband helped lift it off my husband, and pulled the branches out of his mouth and ears.

Four hours after arriving at the tree farm we headed home. I thought it had been a wonderful way to spend an entire afternoon and great for generating a Christmasy spirit. Didn't he think so, too?

He looked me in the eye, spit out several tree needles, then said, "Ho, ho, ho."

I assumed that meant yes. But this year, when I brought up the subject of picking out our tree, he informed me that he's already found the perfect tree, one that doesn't need to be cut -- only assembled. Ho, ho, ho.

JOANNE SHERMAN is a free-lance writer living in Shelter Island, N.Y.

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