by Bruce Littlefield
Christmas makes us happy like no other holiday.
It’s downright fun (except at one-day sales and during light detangling) and presents us all with a chance to be kids again and throw a little twinkle around. For most homes, the tree is the centerpiece — a giant twinkling sculpture showcasing the memories of our past, the glitter of our present, and beneath its branches, the unopened excitement of the future. Picking the tree has become one of my favorite holiday traditions.
Bruce Littlefield is a best-selling author and lifestyle expert. His book Merry Christmas America is an adventure in over-the-top decorating, and his latest book, Moving In: Tales of an Unlicensed Marriage, is set in the Hudson Valley.
Before buying a house in the Hudson Valley, we’d get our tree each year at the corner Korean deli I call "Kim’s Mark-Up."
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Mr. Kim leans his selection of trees between two makeshift wooden supports, and I’d quickly run over to appraise his collection and get the pick of the litter. There’d be "too tall" and "too short," but among the forest would also be a handful of "just right." I’d grab the one already in a stand and go. It was that simple and unrewarding.
After moving to this area, I discovered there’s an incredible green opportunity for fun called a "tree farm," a veritable zoo of funny named creatures — balsam, Fraser, spruce, and more.
You’re handed a saw and a mission to hunt down your own. The first farm I ever visited was in Accord. I remember being faced with two daunting fields lined with more Christmas trees than I’d seen in my life and instantly knew one thing: I was looking at an obsessive-compulsive decision that could either be a fertile fantasy or a bulb-bursting nightmare.
How many are there?" I asked as I was handed a saw.
"You mean counting the little ones?"
"I mean how many do I have to pick from?" I said, trying not to hyperventilate.
I felt weak in the knees. So, I did what had to be done — I decided to choose one and choose one fast. I walked over to a green giant — just short of Rockefeller Center material — and stood by it, hoping to stay focused on its towering figure and not be distracted by the thousands of others that were . . . oh, no, off in the distance one caught my eye. I walked toward it. And before you could say, "Partridge in a pear tree," I was sucked in.
"What time do you close?" I desperately asked at one point as I went from tree to tree.
"Well, it gets dark in an hour or so. What size do you want?"
"Big," I drooled. "Well, sort of big. I mean, not too big. What do you think?"
"Just walk around a little."
I turned and walked back in. The problem on a tree farm is that you pick a tree and while trying to find someone for a second opinion, you see another tree and suddenly forget where the first one was. Or in which direction.
They all look alike — until you get into serious evaluation of their features.
There are several techniques I discovered to mark trees under consideration. On my first such journey, I used what I had—my scarf, a receipt from my pocket, and a used tissue. I’ve since taken pre-cut long pieces of bright ribbon to mark a few finalists.
Fellow tree hunters are always quick to proffer their opinion, and I’ve said and heard it all: ugly; has potential, but not this year; not good for kids; ick. In searching for the perfect specimen, I’ve also developed a tree-hunting vocabulary:
Rust — the tree branch equivalent of age spots.
Collared — neckline issues.
Tilter — needed chiropractic help earlier in life
Dead — well, that one explains itself.
That first year, and each year since, I proudly drive home with the carcass tied atop my car while thinking I’ve found the "best tree ever." And that’s the thrill of the hunt and the joy of the season.
5 STEPS TO A GORGEOUS TREE
Creating the perfect Christmas tree is an art that can be learned:
1. Decorate away from the wall
Pick a spot for a tree away from heat sources and foot traffic. Now, pull it out away from the wall and place a few chairs around it, or grab a stepladder. You need to be able to easily access all sides and reach the top branches.
2. Hang the lights first
Start at the base of the trunk and work your way up the tree. If possible, keep the lights lit as you go. Rather than "strangling" the tree with lights, work your way from the trunk out along each branch and back in, moving your way around and up the tree. This will give the tree depth and make it more dynamic.
3. Hang the garland
Start at the top, and work your way around and down the tree, weaving the garland in and out and giving it swag. Try using a variety of garlands. Thin beads look best hung branch to branch, and thicker garlands look better loosely wrapped around the tree.
4. Hang the ornaments, from big to small
If you have a lot of any one type of ornament, put these all on first, spacing them evenly. If you have large ornaments, put them on early in the process to prevent the tree from looking unbalanced. Fill in with smaller ornaments, making sure not to ignore the inner branches of the tree, as well as the tips.
5. Top it off
The final touch is crowning the tree—otherwise, it will look unfinished. Choose something that makes you happy, whether it be a bow, a star, an angel, or something fun made by the kids.
5 TREE TRIMMING SECRETS DESIGNERS WON’T TELL YOU (BUT I WILL!)
When it comes to trimming your tree, there’s really no wrong way. Your tree is a statement of who you are, so be you. But here are a few designer tricks to make it extra special:
1. Before decorating,
stand back and look at the tree’s shape. You want your ornaments to hang freely. Don’t be scared to give it a little haircut by trimming the branches and cutting off any misshapen ones.
2. Make your own hooks by cutting four-inch pieces of green floral wire. This will allow you to mold (and disguise) the wire along the branch and place your ornaments exactly where you want them.
3. Be generous with lights. Think 100 per linear foot. Blending different-sized light bulbs also makes your tree more interesting.
4. Put your most fragile ornaments toward the top of the tree
to have them at eye level (and keep them safely out of reach of little hands).
5. Take a yearly photograph of your tree.
When you do, dim the lights in the room, preventing the tree from looking flat and making it photograph beautifully.
5 TIPS TO KEEPING IT FRESH
My grandmother in South Carolina would always nab her tree on the other side of the railroad tracks from her house. Each year after the hack job, she’d drag the thirsty thing back up to the house, stick it in a wrought-iron stand, and pour it a cocktail of ginger ale and water. She always said, "It needed a little sugar to make it feel good." (We were teetotalers, so the tree should be too.)
I’ve since learned that the sugar is an old wives tale. Good old water will work just fine, but here are five tips to keeping the tree fresh:
1. When you get your tree home, give it a pick-me-up by cutting one inch off the butt in a straight cut and immediately placing it in water.
2. Put the tree in a stand that can hold at least one gallon of water. The first few days watch the water level closely. It’ll drink like a sailor on shore leave.
3. Always keep the base in water.
(So, weekenders, think of it as a potted plant that you call the neighbor’s kid over to water.)
4. Miniature and LED lights
give off less heat, and, therefore, won’t dry out the tree as quickly. If you’re opting for vintage or larger bulbs, always be present if the lights are on.
5. Freshly cut, well-cared-for trees can last five weeks.
If your tree dries out, consider it a fire hazard, and send it packing like a bad holiday guest.
CUT-YOUR-OWN TREE FARMS WE RECOMMEND:
Hardenburgh Christmas Tree Farm
206 Hardenburgh Road. Ulster Park, NY 12487
845 658-8894 www.hardenburghfarm.com
Bell's Christmas Tree Farm
647 Mettacahonts Road. Accord, NY 12404