Rituals of the Season

Pining for Christmas

In search of the perfect evergreen

By Nancy Oakley     Photographs by Amy Freeman

Where to start? With garlands of gold stars? Or the heavy wooden nutcracker and assorted animal figures hanging from the bottom branches? I opt for the treasured, fragile molded-glass ornaments, a sun and a moon with serene painted faces, and an old-fashioned St. Nicholas in splendid white robes. The next to come down are other glass figures: Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob and Tiny Tim Cratchit and Marley’s Ghost, gifts from my sisters a few Christmases back; and the old-fashioned policeman that my mother gave me, a replica of one that hung on her father’s tree. As I remove each hook, a shower of needles falls from the spindly Fraser fir that has borne these shiny baubles for the last month, and the aroma of ripe pine transports me to a sunny November afternoon with friends, all of us wandering on a mountainside near Roaring Gap in search of the perfect evergreens to ring in the holiday season . . .

The Marthas, as I sometimes call my friends Missie and Sherrie, not only because of their enthusiasm for all things Martha Stewart, but also their ability to beautify any space, are experts at Christmas tree hunting. For them, only trees direct from Western N.C. farms will do. “You never know how long a tree’s been sitting out if it’s on a lot,” Sherrie says. “They’re not tied up. And they’re less expensive. Maybe it all adds up after you do all the driving, but it’s worth it.”

“You can cut it right when you pick it,” Missie adds.

The Marthas have been making the annual pilgrimage to the mountains since their children were infants. “The first year that we did it,” says Sherrie, “Jake (Sherrie’s elder son, now a teenager) was a baby, and Curren (Missie’s college-age son) fell asleep on the way home with a passie in his mouth,” as we barrel west out of Winston-Salem. Their dogs, a golden retriever and a golden doodle, crowd around my feet in the backseat. 

“We never invite the men,” Missie says of her husband, Jim and Sherrie’s husband, David. “Because we always get trees that are too big and they complain.”

Missie’s cellphone rings. “Where are you?” she asks. It is her daughter Anna, 22, navigating as Curren follows, with Jake and his 12-year-old brother, Bouldin, in tow. “Get off on 40 and 421,” she commands.

“Is it 40 or 421?” Sherrie asks. “I always forget.”

“40 to 77 on up,” Missie says, and then picks up the thread of reminiscing about past excursions. “I just remember eating lunch on the tractor.”

“Edna’s,” Sherrie recalls. “It was wonderful. Run by a sweet old couple. They served hot dogs. Then their trees went through a lull. Then we found another farm. They had hayrides. Then that one went through a lull.”

That’s how it goes with the growing cycles of the various tree farms in the Carolina mountains, and the Marthas have developed a sixth sense at sussing out the ones with the freshest trees year after year.

“Then there was the year Jim told my mother to shove the tree — ”

“That was Sparta,” Sherrie cuts her off, explaining that was also the first year their parents, aka, “the Seniors,” started accompanying them. “Last year, it was just me, Missie and Pappy,” she says, remembering Missie’s dad, who died earlier in the year; her own father and stepmother preceded him a few years prior. Only the Marthas’ mothers are left; they prefer to skip the tree-hunt this year.

“Last year we went to Maines,” Missie says, referring to Maines Choose and Cut Christmas Tree Farm.

“It was cold, it was rainy,” Sherrie picks up the thread. “The place we’d been going to for years, the trees looked dead.”

“It was the last stop,” says Missie.

One of the tenets of Martha-dom: Never give up.

As the Piedmont’s fallow fields and russet hardwoods begin to give way to higher elevations, the talk turns to the trees proper. “I’m getting a tree for the basement, a tree for the living room. I’m contemplating getting a tree for the urn out front,” Sherrie reflects. “I thought it would be pretty to see the lights from the inside.”

“I’m not doing a tree,” Missie says emphatically. Empty-nesters, she and Jim have recently downsized to a downtown condo after selling their house with the tiny servant’s cottage that I rented from them for years. Anna and I are now neighbors in another old West End house divided into apartments that Missie’s family bought years ago and have continuously rented.

I’m in charge of Christmas this year,” Anna proudly told me over a glass of wine in an earlier conversation. “I’m going to put the tree right here in this corner,” she said, pointing to a space in her dining room with the 12-foot ceiling.

We take a detour through Jonesville, passing antique dealers, general stores, the Bible Baptist Church, before returning to the Interstate. After the Stone Mountain State Park exit, we turn off on the next exit toward Roaring Gap and Sparta.

“I forgot to bring rope,” Sherrie says

“I never bring rope,” says Missie, who starts reeling off her list. “I’ll get a 10-footer for my mom, another for Anna. Nanz, what about you?”

I pause for moment, because I hadn’t given much thought to the size of a tree. When I lived in the tiny cottage where space was minimal, it was a no-brainer: either a 5-footer or a tabletop. My elegant, 12-foot ceilings, like Anna’s, would dwarf a tree that size. But then, thought of climbing up and down a stepladder to decorate a 10-footer was daunting. “Maybe a 6-foot tree?” I say.

“I’m getting two 7-footers and a 5-footer,” says Sherrie, as we slowly wind up the curving roads of Alleghany County, where a slight haze from the fall wildfires still hangs in the air. Legions of cars and vans, firs strapped to their roofs, are descending the mountain.

“I’m starting to feel guilty about not getting one,” Missie says.

“You could get a little one,” I suggest, knowing that she could spin her Martha Magic to make a tree of any size look spectacular.

After the entrance to Old Beau, Sherrie hangs a left onto a side road, and there it is: Maines Choose and Cut Christmas Tree Farm.

The golden lets out an excited bark at the sight of cows grazing on a sunny pasture, which gives way to row upon row of triangular evergreens.

The driveway leads to a clearing, where dozens of cars, vans and pickups are parked in back of two small sheds. Crowds of families with small children, older couples wearing Christmas-themed sweatshirts, college kids in down vests and boots mill about sipping hot chocolate and downing Oreos. More folks traipse up and down the slopes between rows of trees, wielding long, white poles — measuring sticks for choosing trees of desired height to the soundtrack of buzzing chain saws.

Anna and Curren and Jake and Bouldin have tumbled out and already retrieved a couple of poles, which the younger boys like to hold horizontally, and shake up and down, so the ends flap.

“None shall pass!” Jake cries out, as he slams the end of one pole into the ground.

“Sure thing, Gandalf,” I say.

“Anyone want some gum?” Curren asks. He is the epitome of collegiate cool in his wraparound shades.

Bouldin runs up and grabs a piece.

“Watch your step,” Missie cautions, pointing to the tree stumps on the ground, covered with hay and grass seed. “That’s quite a wind.”

“It is a bit chilly,” I say.

“It’s chilly,” says Curren.

It’s chilly,” Jake mimics him.

“It’s chilly,” says Bouldin, keeping up with his big brother.

“I think there’s an echo on this mountain,” I say, fumbling with the golden’s leash. He wags his tail while a fashionably dressed woman in a waxed Barbour jacket dotes on him.

We split off into separate groups; I follow Missie and Anna to a patch of evergreens.

“This one?” Missie suggests.

“Mom! We don’t have the same taste!” says an irritated Anna. “I want this one. Big and tall.”

“But it’ll take up the whole room.”
“That’s the plan, Sam!”

Sherrie moves about from one row to the next, her Martha radar quickly assessing each potential find.

“Mom is picky about her trees now, Jake,” says Bouldin, as his older brother holds his wizard’s staff to measure a tall fir.

Missie and I realize that most of the trees are, at the very least, 8 feet tall.

“Do you have any smaller ones?” she asks a fellow passing by, carrying a chain saw.

“They’re few and far between,” he says. “But you might find some over by that apple tree,” he adds, pointing.

We follow his direction, and out of the corner of my eye, I see it. It’s slimmer than the trees I’ve had in the past, and there are a few bare patches, but I don’t want something too fat or it won’t fit the space I’ve designated for it. I stop and look.

“I like that little guy, too,” says Missie.

“I’ll keep looking,” I say.

“Don’t wander too far or somebody might nab it. You have to stay with it so the guy can cut it down,” she says.

Who am I to ignore the advice of a Martha? I call Jake over to measure with the pole.

“I dunno, Nanza,” he kids me. “This pole is strictly for shaking.” He then holds it up to the spindly tree. “Looks to be a little over 6 feet.”

Soon comes the roar of the chain saw, and suddenly, before my feet is the tree that will usher in the Christmas season in a few days’ time. As I’m trying to visualize it with lights and ornaments dangling from its branches in the bright afternoon sunlight, I hear another blast from the chain saw. Missie has chosen a tree, after all. It is smaller, about 4 feet tall, and I can tell from the expression on her face that she’s uncertain where it will go in the condo.

By now Sherrie has found her two 7-footers and the 5-footer for the outside stoop and we’re all waiting for Maines’ workers to load the trees onto the cars. Curren pulls around and after the trees are secured on the roof, Missie turns to me.

“Holes!” She says. “We forgot to have them drill holes in the bottoms for the tree stands.”

Later that evening, the oversight elicits smirks and knowing glances between the husbands, who meet us for drinks at the Tap back in Winston.

“I got three trees this year,” Sherrie tells David. “You’ll have to take a foot off of each one.”

He looks over the top of his glasses at Jim and shakes his head.

“They forgot to get holes drilled this year,” Jim says, taking a sip of his IPA. “I was good, though! I didn’t say anything.” He pauses. “But,” he adds with a wink, “If I’d been there, we wouldn’t have forgotten the holes.”

How quickly days pass. . .

As I remove the bare tree from the stand I chuckle about those holes. I need a laugh, for there’s something sad about taking down a Christmas tree. How for a month, the glory of the living room that once twinkled with lights and shiny glass works of art, will lie bare and forlorn on the street curb until it’s picked up. There is some comfort in the knowledge that the Marthas are going through a similar exercise: Missie divesting the red icicles and tiny pine cones and birds of her Charlie Brown tree; Anna plucking the giant candy canes off of her 10-footer, and the commemorative ornament of Reynolds Auditorium, a gift from her high school music teacher. At this very moment, Sherrie is unwinding handfuls of tinsel from Jake’s and Bouldin’s tree downstairs, strands and strands of white lights from her stunning living room tree and from the tiny tree outside, that, yes, looked beautiful when viewed through windows of her foyer. Unlike me, my friends are not sentimental about the winding down of the holiday. They are already potting paperwhites for winter, and planning the menu for New Year’s Eve. Because that’s what it takes to be a Martha.  h

Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of Seasons and its sister publication, O.Henry.

Do you have a seasonal ritual? If so, we’d love to hear about it! – The editors

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