The perfect Christmas tree exists, and can be a fun challenge to buy

Out of the Woods

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2001

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

I ran into a friend last week who asked why I hadn't written about buying Christmas trees. She was shocked to learn I didn't know a darned thing about it, gave me a few sobering facts to get me started and sent me off to find out more. It is a retail market filled with a giddy range of selection and it all happens very quickly. The purchase tests marriages, budgets and core values. It's a holiday tradition.

Some of us have a childish image of all Alaska families going out into the woods to find the perfect tree, cutting it and hauling it home through the snow, rosy cheeks gleaming and hearts light. I know from personal experience that the perfect tree changes on the way home and may have several trunks, a bare side or two and be a different size on arrival at the house. One year the house even shrank while we were out and we had to cut a full six feet off the tree, didn't really matter which end, before it would fit in the door. We Alaskans deal with this with surgery, baling wire and careful placement in the home. A corner tree only needs one good side, after all. I recall fondly drilling holes and inserting branches in the good side's bare spots. I thought everyone did it that way.

It's been quite a few years now since I went out in the woods for a tree. My household has been dressing up the most willing large houseplant with good results. I see now that I have been missing a very big part of the holiday season shopping the commercial tree lots. The first thing that intrigues me is the amazing variety of imported evergreens available. You've got your noble fir, your Doug fir, your balsam and grand fir, then there is the Colorado blue spruce, Scotch pine, white pine, lone pine how can a person choose? At first touch, I'm a big fan of the firs because they don't cause pain and draw blood. I don't think you would need the leather gloves and full protective clothing we use to trim our Sitka spruce. Let's see a show of bandaged hands; how many of you know what I mean? Next, I am fascinated by the shapes of the commercial trees. Some are nearly perfectly conical. Are they individually fenced while growing or manicured, like topiary? There are no bare sides. In fact, you can't even see the trunk in many of them. They are perfect.

I wanted to know about the buyer's experience, so asked around. I was told one horror story about a spouse who systematically unwrapped and examined each of about a million trees. The reasonable partner (who no jury would have convicted) begged for appraisal based on the wrapped girth, which seemed, well, reasonable. They are still married. Another buyer shared a grim warning to check the trunk; the business end that goes into the stand. Their tree required a forestry degree and a lot of physics to get it to stand upright. Others had tales that are funny now, after the healing of time, about starting to shop too late, traveling too many miles, stressing, paying too much money and settling for anything that was once alive. Of course, there was the not speaking to each other for days.

The shopping story that made it all come together for me was one I got to witness. A couple I know had just pulled up to a lot I was going to crawl through to feel all the trees. (Really, there are trees that don't hurt!) I asked them what they were looking for and they said they don't have any preference for the kind of tree. They pick a tree as you would a puppy, intuitively finding the one that needs them.

Buying a tree seems to fit the holiday spirit to me now. It can be just as fun a family experience as going out to the forest to find a perfect specimen, cutting it and lovingly dragging it home. The only real difference I can see is that the tree you buy stays perfect when you get it in the house.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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