The (old school) Christmas tree thing

Christmas. We officially have 12 days until the big day (hmmm, that reminds me of a song…). And it’s beginning to look a lot like this much-anticipated holiday around here. I mean, we have snow. Lots and lots of sparkling snow, the lights are up, the wreath is on the door, and, much to the pug’s dismay, I scrounged up his Santa suit.

But really, you can’t wear a Santa suit, dog or human, without the Christmas tree. I mean, that would just be ridiculous. And out here at the ranch, hands down the best thing about Christmas has always been the Christmas tree.

Because the search for the perfect tree out in the wild pastures of western North Dakota is an event. It is a hunt. It is magic. It is anticipation and adventure and tradition in its purest form and everything that makes the season so damn delightful.

That’s right, we do the tree thing old school.

And by old school I mean bundling up in our snowsuits and neckerchiefs (and facemasks if it’s really cold out there) and scouting out the 3,000 acres of semi-rugged snow covered landscape for a cedar that looks like it might fit nicely in the corner of our little house covered in twinkling lights and sparkly balls and glitter and candy canes and presents and a cat climbing up the middle… well, hopefully that last part doesn’t happen.

And then, when the clouds open up and the light shines on that particularly spectacular tree the men of the land whip out their hand-saws and gently detach it from the earth and drag it home to live the remainder of its life on the receiving end of “oooo” and “ahhhh” while providing shelter to the perfectly wrapped presents placed beneath it.

Not a bad life for a tree. Probably beats being pooped on by birds….

Anyway, my family and the families who live out here as our neighbors and friends have been cutting Christmas trees off of their land as a tradition since the homesteading days. And that is the world I was transported to every time we went out with pops on a blustery, sunny December day to fetch ourselves the centerpiece of Christmas when we were young.

I found myself imagining how it used to be, hitching up a horse to a sleigh and venturing out into the hills on a mission to make a tiny, drafty, house standing strong against the season in the middle of a lonely winter farmstead feel a little warmer with the sweet smell of cedar–the land’s gift to those who had worked it all year.

I envisioned a family gathering around the tree standing humbly decorated in green and red singing the same carols we continue to sing to this day, opening their stockings, tasting the recipes that have been passed down, moving in close to one another under the branches, smiling in the glow of the season.

I imagine a simple, quiet holiday with the cattle in the yard and the snow falling softly outside and families giving thanks for the life that they lead….

So you see, the Christmas tree has never been just a tree to me. It has been a feeling. A process. A ritual. The best memory of the season.

And you can imagine I have quite a bit to say about the whole business of my Christmas tree, because last week, husband and I ventured out to find it…

…the same way I did when I was a kid.

A kid in my mini Carharts and Santa hat, with a little twinkle in my eye put there by the whole holiday spirit thing, stepping in my dad’s foot prints in the deep snow, hand shading my eyes, scoping out my world for a glimpse of the perfect tree—a tree that would bring Christmas to my house….and if I was lucky, Santa too.

I am not positive, but I think dad would have the tree located long before December and, in the snowy years, probably used the tractor to plow a trail right to its location. But my sisters and I were convinced we were essential company on this hunt and when we finally found it, we would exclaim over and over how beautiful, how perfectly shaped and proportioned, how lovely it would look in our house. And then–our favorite part–pops would cut us a couple branches that would sit in coffee cans in our rooms, decorated with our own set of colored lights and ornaments we had made ourselves.

Oh, I loved this. I loved having Christmas in my room. I would load that little branch up with so many lights, so much tinsel, an excess of reindeer shaped ornaments and snowflakes and popcorn and cranberry strands creating a Christmas explosion that caused that little tree to collapse under the weight of all that love and joy.

Yup, it would tip right over.

Every night—ka boom.

But I didn’t care, I just propped it back up, brushed off the glitter and climbed back in bed to admire the twinkling lights as I drifted off to sleep and marked another day off the calendar on my countdown to Christmas.

I know you all have been there. I know you can remember the feeling–that feeling when you found yourself as a child in the middle of winter in your bunny slippers, your heart full of wonder and joy and anticipation at the sight of the lights, the taste of peppermint on your lips, the smell of the cedar tree…

…oh how that smell transports me…

So here we are, husband and I, at the ranch for Christmas. And so it seems we made a little tradition, a little unspoken pact that as long as we were blessed enough to be here, we would celebrate the simple, time-honored things by venturing out and cutting ourselves a cedar.

But let me remind you here about the size of our house: it’s small. And we have a lot of furniture crammed in here. So I wasn’t sure we could manage a tree this year. And if we did, it would have to be pretty modest.

But apparently husband had a different idea entirely and as we headed out into the crisp, clear, December day, it became quiet evident that his eyes and his holiday heart were a bit bigger than the room we have in our house.

Because as we scanned the landscape in our snowsuits, eternally grateful for my brother-in-law’s generous donation of a snowmobile for this adventure, my suggestions and hand waves and hikes up to the reserved and unassuming trees I envisioned would fit nicely in our little home were met with the following statements:

“What, you want a Christmas branch?”

“A Charley Brown tree? We can’t have a Charley Brown tree.”

“Seriously, how small are you thinking?”

And my favorite:

“How is Santa going to know where to put the presents if he can’t find the damn tree?”

And so our search continued, up hills, around bends, scaring coyotes from the draws and the dogs, not to miss something this significant, huffing and puffing through the drifts behind us.

This one’s too big. This one’s too small. This one we’ll save for our next house. This one would look good in Rockefeller Center.

It started to get dark.

My cheeks were getting cold.

We split up, husband on the mobile, me on foot. Damn the machine, we had to do this the old way.

I followed my feet down a cliff and out into a clearing where a tree that looked the perfect size from half a mile away sure grew mighty fast as I crept up on it.

Husband took to the hills behind me, testing, I am thinking, his wild-man side on his new toy. And as I stood looking up in amazement at the giant cedar thinking we should turn in for the day and try a different pasture tomorrow, husband swept up behind me (not so quietly…not as peacefully as I had envisioned the whole process) and killed the engine.

“Oh, look over there…” he whispered behind me and I turned to find him pointing to the horizon where two big mule deer bucks were creeping along the top of the butte as the sun dipped below the landscape.

We sucked in the cold air as we watched those creatures, unconcerned by the entire spectacle of tree hunting and the snow monsters on two legs causing a stir below them. Our mouths hung open in awe, our breath creating misty puffs in the cold weather as the animals pawed and scraped at the frozen earth and then, finally found a proper place to bed down for the night…

I am not sure how long we stood in silence and watched the beasts hunkering down against the season, so quietly, so magnificently, but when we finally broke our gaze, we followed our eyes down from the butte and found they settled on a tree that looked like it just might work.

A tree that we just might have room for in our home.

Well, at least that’s what husband said to me and I agreed, caught up in the magic of it all.

So out came the saw and, just like that, the top of the spruce was detached from the land and tied to the back of the snowmobile, transforming it from a racing machine to a modern day sleigh.

Off we went, in the snow, into the sunset, me, my husband and my Christmas tree (oh, and the dogs… the shivery, snowy dogs in our wake.)

And when we approached the house with the cedar trailing behind, a bit of reality began to creep up on me. There was no way this magnificent tree was going to fit in that door. We were going to have to take out all of the furniture. We were going to have to build an extra room.

One of us was going to have to move out…

But husband was determined. Determined. And miraculously he got the tree into the entryway to thaw out, blocking us inside for a good day and a half.  And when I climbed out the window to get to work the next day, I came home to find that husband had indeed found a place for our Christmas tree.

A pretty perfect place really. I mean, I don’t actually need to get to my desk. And I don’t mind branches tickling my ears as I’m reading the paper on the couch.

I don’t mind at all.

So I spent a good two days decorating and humming Christmas carols to myself and falling asleep gazing at its twinkling lights and remembering that enchanting evening when it found us.

Our tree.

…and it hasn’t tipped over yet…

But if it does, I won’t mind, because I am eight again…

I am eight years old every time I walk in my door and the smell of cedar fills my lungs….

…I think husband knew that would happen…

And that, my friend, is the best thing about Christmas.

Hands down.

121 thoughts on “The (old school) Christmas tree thing

  1. How lovely! This post sings Christmas: tradition, magic, love–the TREE!

    Because of deforestation in Haiti, we won’t be cutting our tree, but I so enjoyed your sharing this magic–a tree that hasn’t tipped over yet.

    Happy Holidays from Port-au-Prince,

  2. Very, very pretty. And, Chug looked so cute and always amazes me. The pugs around here are such sissies. They treat the outdoors like the enemy. And, the little trees in your room are perfect for little girls. I’ve never seen a cedar Christmas tree until today–what a beautiful idea. And, I still have to ask “Why did you name your sister ‘Buffalo Alice” and tell me that isn’t her real name. K

  3. Aww, beautiful. I miss the smell of a Real tree. We had a real one when we lived on the farm and sometimes b4 my step-mom came on the scene but then we went to the fake one. I like how your tree isn’t perfect..if there is such a one. And your love for the “hunt” of the tree. I remember picking the tree up numerous time when we had cats who would chase each other up and down the trees..maybe that is why we went to the fake ones..couldn’t climb as good :). Thanks for the long forgotten tradition for us and many others. Hugs and stay warm. Nicole

  4. Love the photos…especially the ones of your black pug baby. Reminds me of my girl, Gretchen, who is in doggy heaven now.

    Happy holidays!

  5. What a great story, as I sit here in Houston where it was 85 on Saturday I could almost smell the tree. You are so lucky to live where you are. The picture of the deer were wonderful. I love hunting (as opposed to shooting) I can watch deer all day long and never fire a shot.

    • Oh, those deer were so magical, the way they were so unconcerned on the cold landscape. I was down in the Dallas area this fall and sometimes, when the temperature dips below zero, I think of the family I have down there in the sun. But I don’t think I could do a Christmas without the snow! Thanks for stopping in and Merry Christmas to you!

  6. That coffee can with a couple of tree branches in it all decorated up sounds like a wonderful thing! I think I would always remember something as simple and beautiful as that. I’m so happy that you shared all of your thoughts and great images with us all, because it’s fun to see Christmas through someone else’s eyes. Your photography inspires me. Sounds like your living the good life! Which to me, means living simple and appreciating everything around you…especially the beauty of God’s creations.

    • rtcrita, I am living a pretty good life and only hope I can continue these wonderful traditions for my children when they come to me…feeling pretty blessed this holiday season to be in a place I love with people who love me. You said it right…living simple and appreciating it, that’s what it is about.

      Merry Christmas to you and thanks for stopping by!

  7. Wonderful photos! That’s it…I’m year, it’ll be a real tree! And if all goes as planned we’ll be finding our perfect little property with our future Christmas trees already growing upon it! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  8. I have been feeling rather grinchy lately, but reading this reminded me I haven’t put Christmas lights around my children’s beds, and clearly that is a tradition to be continued, since sadly we have no ranch at our fingertips.
    Beautiful pictures.

  9. Great stuff! Love when people talk about traditions in their family when it comes to Christmas time. Great pics too. Check out my latest post, a running diary of sorts of a typical Christmas day for me growing up as a child.

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    • Crystal, western ND is an entirely different world, especially where we are at the edge of the badlands. I love this landscape and so glad you stopped by neighbor. The Black Hills are lovely aren’t they? Lots of Christmas trees there.

      Happy holidays to ya!

  11. lovely sentimental post; thank you for it. I can smell that freshly cut pine from here. And the photo with the hoar frost (sp?) delish .. Cheers for the season!

    congrats also on being fresh pressed 🙂

  12. Yay for Christmas reminiscing! I always get a twinge of excitement whenever Mom pulls out her holiday decorations..she always made Christmas so special for me growing up. Now, at the age of 25, she still helps me put up my OWN decorations, while watching a Christmas movie. This was such a well done post…congrats on being FP!

    • Ha, that’s a good point. I was thinking about that actually, how I like that there are no particular rules about those things when your family owns the place…phew…I’m not ready for jail…orange, like I’ve said before, is so not my color.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Great post
    I’d love to spend one christmas out on a ranch; somewhere rural…
    Christmas trees hav always been one f my favorite parts of christmas, except when i would end up at sumone’s place who’s tree totally sucked (missing branches, lots of gaps, ugly bulbs, not enough lights, too many lights, so many things could go wrong). Picking a tree is an art but, we’re not all artists…
    A few years back my parents invested in your standard suburban artificial tree (lights preinstalled). It’s not the same. i miss the smell that would jump at you when u walk through the door…

    Don’t stop Howling…
    OhKami’s Voice

  14. Amazing post 😉 thanks! I live in New Zealand and we have really odd Christmas trees, not like douglas fir ones people use in america (I think they are douglas fir) we use a completely different ‘breed’ as knowbody thought to bring xmas trees with them when they migrated to New Zealand, and now it is illegal to bring them over. I still put a real one up every year, none the less. I love the smell, and the way the towards the end of the xmas season they start to drop needles and the decorations fall off. Thanks for sharing this post again.

    • Ooo, I’d love to see your completely different breed of tree. I bet they’re gorgeous. It’s not too common to have a cedar Christmas tree around here, unless you’re country folks who have a soft spot in your heart for them…usually they are pine or fur or spruce..

      Merry Christmas and thanks for stopping in!

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  17. Allthough i live in Wales (uk), college gives me opportunity to look at Word press. Having come across your piece I have to admit I was a little teary (in a good way). I don’t have a tree much these days, but having grown up in care I remember the magnificent trees that sat (or should that be stood) in grand halls and long entrance corridors. Your piece transported me and I got a bit emotional (I have Higher Function Autism), but it was lovely to be 8ish again, and I love the dogs, especially the collie, having owned one myself, and I miss him terribly. Thank you, and may Gods rich blessings be with you and your family this Yuletide.

    • Thanks so much for stopping in. There is something about the holiday that turns us all nostalgic I think, so don’t worry about the tears 🙂 I loved that collie too…we always had collies growing up, hopefully we will have another on this place sometime soon. Merry Christmas to you and thanks for stopping by.

  18. Fantastic post! Thanks for taking us on your journey for the perfect tree and for the lovely photos. Living in Florida, we usually use a fake tree, and I really do miss the smell of a live tree! You captured how it can really make the holiday perfectly.

    By the way – as a fellow pug owner (one fawn & one black) I appreciate the look of ‘joy’ you captured while yours was in his Santa suit. I got that very look this morning when everyone put on their fleece coats to brave the unseasonably cold 35 degrees here.

    I am so delighted to have found your blog and look forward to reading more! Merry Christmas!

    • Oh those pugs have personality don’t they? Mine thinks he’s 105 pounds when he’s outside with the ranch dogs and then he quickly transforms into a lap dog when he looks at me with those buggy eyes and wants to get on the couch. But one thing he knows for sure–he doesn’t appreciate outfits. He gets genuinely embarrassed. Thanks so much for reading!

  19. hehe the nostalgia, the old tree stories and how my dog would always dig in the vase where we put the tree.

    The difference is we use pine trees, not cedars. Interesting how the interpretation of trees varies between places.

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  21. Beautifully written post, and lovely photos to go with it — you definitely brought me with you Christmas tree hunting! And I love how, in one shot with the tree on the back of the snowmobile, the tail light makes it look as though there is already a glimmering red Christmas ball on the tree. *smile*

    Alas, growing up in the suburbs, we always went to a tree farm, and gauged the tree off my father’s 6’2″ frame. It always looked too small outside, and enormous when we brought it home.

    Congratulations on finding your tree!

    • Thanks so much. You made me laugh with the visual of you measuring your Christmas tree next to your father. Christmas trees have a way of really filling up the house…they do look much more insignificant under the big sky…very much more significant crammed between my desk and couch…oh well…I love it!

      Thanks for stopping in and Merry Christmas!

  22. The story and the pictures are so sweet. And, oh the deer. So serene and really just all around too cute to handle. What a beautiful blog. I just discovered it! I’m going to visit more ofen. I blog about life in the Jersey burbs with my brand new hubby and our little dog Karma on, This week we shared pictures of our tree and our Christmas tree trimming story:

  23. I love this Christmas story, and I am glad you and The Hub found the perfect tree with a little help from the 2 big bucks. I hope your new year is just as magical!

    Cool blog…keep up the good work.

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