My earliest memory of an actual Christmas tradition in our family was that of the annual Christmas Tree Hunt. There may have been years where we purchased a tree from one of the many vendors around town—we would likely have bought ours from the guys set up on the church parking lot— but buying a tree was rare for us.
The hillsides and mountains around Reno where I grew up were covered with any number of trees. The Sierra Nevada mountains had pine trees, though little in the way of the traditional conical-shaped Douglas fir or noble fir. Those showed up in the parking lots around town, shipped down from Oregon. The ponderosa pines and sugar pines in the Sierra were a scraggly lot in their smaller sizes, though beautiful and stately once they were grown. But a five to six foot ponderosa pine had few branches from which to hang ornaments.
Our Christmas tree hunt generally focused on the smaller hills to the south of town, an easy hour-long trip to the hills outside Virginia City. There we could find the tree my Dad favored: Nevada’s pinion pine. The pinion pine is a squat, rather bushy style of tree. Very aromatic, quite a bit of pitch which would often be hard to clean off your hands, and lots of pine cones.
But because most of the trees we found ran towards the beachball shape, it would take a lot of trekking the hills until we found one that was suitable. Never mind if there were bare spots, those could be filled in later with strategically placed branches, cut and reattached with a bit of wire.
When I married, one of the holiday traditions I wanted to continue with my family was that of the Christmas Tree Hunt. My wife was onboard, and my son enjoyed the trips out to Ticonderoga Farm in Chantilly, especially the year it snowed. Most years the weather was warm and the hunt for a beautiful scotch pine didn’t take long. Acres of trees grown in well-tended rows took some of the “adventure of the hunt” out of the experience, but sipping hot chocolate around the fire pit while we waited for the tree to be bagged with netting more than made up for lost adventure.
Years later I finally broke down and we purchased a prelit artificial tree. We spray it with some winter scent (this year it is “Snowy Night”) hoping to enjoy some of that fresh-cut smell. Not the same, but it’s nice. I saw cars and trucks on the road coming back from Middleburg over the weekend, each one with a nice plump tree strapped to their roof. We just bought a new, prelit tree last year when we downsized to a townhouse. So we won’t be taking part in the Annual Tree Hunt any time soon. And truthfully, I think my days of wandering around the hills looking for that perfect tree are over.
I did plant a small spruce in the yard last year. Who knows but in a few years, it might be large enough to string a few outdoor lights on. But I’m not giving up my Balsam Hill tree. After all, it’s prelit.