GROVELAND — Driving through Groveland, about 40 minutes north of Boston, on the way to Crane Neck Christmas Tree Farm in West Newbury, I pass through a small downtown area crammed with shops. I stop into a diner to grab a bite at the counter — it seems like the whole place is one big counter — where a group of rough-hewn guys have ducked in to catch up and eat chowder. It’s one of those kitschy, retro spots that is neither kitschy nor retro on purpose, where the waitress knows names, and there’s plenty of strong coffee and town gossip.
One of the best things about trekking out to a farm to cut your Christmas tree is that it takes you through places like this.
It’s a bright, chilly day in early November when I set out to meet a pair of farmers preparing their lot for the season. Jeb Brackbill is walking through one of his fields in Groveland, surveying the trees that he and his business partner, Bill Latham, will sell this year. Brackbill, clad in a red flannel shirt and green vest like he’s in cahoots with Santa himself, is a second generation Christmas tree farmer and has been in the business for more than 45 years.
Just down the road is Brackbill’s family farm, on a property behind the house Brackbill grew up in. A row of 40-foot trees his father planted in the late 1960s stands towering over the property, safe from the saw, while a vintage Ford tractor sits parked in the shed.
Today, Brackbill and Latham are surveying their fields and setting up signs in the parking lot. The rows of Douglas firs stand glistening in the bright fall sun. Each one has been hand-sheared, branch by branch, to achieve that classic, conical shape.
The field is empty of customers today, but it won’t be for long. Soon they’ll come — bundled up against the cold, with saws in hand and kids in tow.
It takes seven to 10 years, depending on the variety, for a tree to go from a seed in the ground to the full-size version you’ll prop up in your living room. That’s almost a foot of growth a year for the 7-foot trees that most of us buy at Christmas. And on tree farms across the state, farmers have been carefully tending to your tree for almost a decade before you show up to cut it down.
What would Christmas be without a tree? The tradition of tree decorating predates Christianity, when the ancient Romans celebrated Saturnus, the god of agriculture, by decorating trees with small pieces of metal. It wasn’t until 17th-century that Germans began to popularize the tannenbaum tradition, bringing the practice with them to the United States about a hundred years later. These days, Christmas and a decorated evergreen are synonymous.
By about Thanksgiving every year, my mother insists that this is the year she’ll buy a fake tree. The real ones are just too much work, she says. And every year my brother and I talk her out of it.
It can be magical bringing the outdoors into your home. There’s the sight, of course, and the smell is one that ranks up there with fresh-baked cookies and clean laundry. But more than that, it’s a connection to a simpler time. When so much of what we do has been upgraded and advanced into a version 2.0, there is an inherent beauty in choosing and cutting and bringing home from the woods your own Christmas tree.
Evergreen vs. A sort of greenish color
REAL: White spruce, Frasier fir, Balsam fir, Douglas fir,
Norway spruce (just to name
a few) grown on a farm
Cost: $25-$80 (by size, variety)
Size: 6-10 feet tall
Lifetime: About 4 weeks for a fresh-cut tree
Tree farms absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Daily watering required; all those needles to vacuum.
A natural, recyclable, renewable resource.
FAKE: Plastic, polyvinyl
chloride, metal, made in factories (85 percent of them in China)
Cost: $70-$600 (by size)
Size: 6-12 feet tall
Buy one and you have it forever
Nonrecyclable, will eventually lie in a landfill forever.
AT THE FARM
Before you pile into the family minivan, make sure to measure the space where you plan to display your tree. Once you get out into the field, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. (We’re looking at you, Clark Griswold.) Don’t go for the biggest tree, but the one that will best complement your space.
Make it a family affair. For one thing, it’s a great excuse to take that holiday photo you always mean to take. More importantly, the actual act of cuttng the tree takes two-plus people: one to saw while the others steady the tree.
Bring plenty of rope. Don’t be that driver whose tree goes flying off the car roof somewhere along Interstate 93. Just don’t.
Wear work gloves: Those reindeer mittens Nana made you sure are cute, but you’ll hate getting them all covered in tree sap.
Make a fresh cut. Once you get the tree home, cut a half inch off the bottom before you stand it in water. This will ensure that your thirsty little tree gets all the hydration it needs.
Keep it wet. As soon as you let a tree stand go dry, a scab begins to form on the cut trunk. Once this happens, it stops absorbing water and the lifespan of the tree is shortened — which means dry needles all over the floor and a fire hazard that’s plugged into the wall. An easy rule: Fill the stand with
1 quart of water per inch of trunk diameter. Tap water is best.
Be safe. Keep trees away from heaters, vents, and radiators, and make sure the tree isn’t blocking any exits. Unplug the lights when you leave the house or go to bed.