Finding a Christmas Tree Tradition

Choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon shouldn’t be a challenge. Oregon is the leading producer of Christmas trees in the U.S., and you can’t shake a candy cane around Salem without running into a tree farm. But my attempts to find and purchase a Christmas tree in this state since I moved here six years ago have yielded mixed results.

I will admit: I’m pretty sure this is my fault. I make things complicated.

I’m originally from the southern Midwest, where the far-from-majestic red cedar is the primary evergreen in existence. Despite this, our home had a strict “no artificial tree allowed” policy. The holiday tree should drop needles all over your house and clog up your vacuum cleaner.

When I first drove the Mackenzie Highway into Eugene, I felt a bit like agent Dale Cooper in “Twin Peaks” — all awestruck wonder at this verdant wonderland of Douglas Firs. And then the holidays arrived. Never again would I have to visit a sad tree lot or listen to my family debate the pros and cons of the Scots pine. Oregon’s embarrassment of riches was bound to make Christmas tree shopping easier, more festive and more interesting.

My attempts to track down the perfect tree have absolutely been more interesting — just not always successful. Here’s a rundown of my experiences — hopefully you’ll learn a thing or two about what to do (or what to avoid) as you decide how to find your own tree this year.

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Me with a big saw for the giant, breathtaking tree that I was sure we were going to find.

Not as big as we imagined, but at least I got to saw it down myself.

Not too bad, although pretty skeletal compared with other trees we've had.

Year 1: True Oregonians

My first Christmas in Oregon. Plus, I was a newlywed. My husband and I, full of Yuletide spirit, ventured out from our little duplex in Eugene to chop down our very own extra-special Oregonian Christmas tree in the Willamette National Forest. At first, this Oklahoma girl was incredulous. Do Oregonians really let you chop down their precious trees? (Yes.) For a mere $5, you can acquire a pass for the national forest of your choosing that allows you to get all Paul Bunyan, and cut down the centerpiece of your holiday décor. I was ecstatic. I got to wield a saw! I was a true Northwesterner.

So we drove … and drove … and drove, stopping at every clearing on our way up the mountains. Each time, we’d find a cluster of spindly specimens that would have looked sparse even in our modest room. Because here’s what they don’t tell you: the good trees are high. You want a full, graceful Noble Fir? Be ready to spend the whole day finding it, because those things are way up there. So we kept driving. Every time we thought we’d found our tree, we realized nature had fooled us yet again, and it was really just two sneaky trees fused together, mocking our ignorance.

Eventually we settled on one that seemed adequate. As in, it had multiple branches and wasn’t flat on one side. I sawed it down myself, which took 30 seconds because the trunk had a circumference of approximately 2 inches. I was (overly) proud.

We got it home, and our tree looked mighty sparse. Maybe it had something to do with procuring it from a national forest, but I’d expected something a tad grander.Now, when I look back at pictures, it honestly wasn’t that bad. But in my memory? Charlie Brown had nothing on our skeletal tree. Some of my favorite ornaments had to remain in a box, their weight simply too much for the little tree to bear. It looked okay, although it definitely lacked the fullness of a farmed tree. But did we have fun cutting it? You bet.

Want to go this route? The Mt. Hood National Forest website has helpful information (plus a video!) about cutting down a Christmas tree there. Other forests have similar rules; be sure to check the U.S. Forest Service website for whichever one you plan to visit. Just be prepared for the fact that your tree may not look exactly picture-perfect. Ultimately, who cares? It’ll look unique and natural, Santa will still find it and you’ll most likely have a cool story to boot.

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It looks nice. But why doesn't it smell?

Year 2: Laziness Prevails

The next year, I wasn’t up for an adventure. I wanted simplicity. So we went with the polar opposite tree adventure, and found said simplicity at a local big-box store. At first, I was highly contented with my decision. I had rebelled against all pressure to conquer the great outdoors, and our tree was full and symmetrical. It was bound in a tight web of plastic, easily placed on the top of our car, and the whole operation of choosing and purchasing it took no longer than 15 minutes. It was, in short, everything you’d expect from a big-box tree — super easy. Within half an hour, I was arranging ornaments and imbibing one of those potent winter beers that arrive in stores just after Halloween.

HOWEVER. We soon realized our visually appealing tree was a bit like buying those gigantic red strawberries at Target in January. The tree was all looks. A day or two after its not-so-grand arrival, we noticed something. Where, in the name of Father Christmas, was the gentle smell of pine wafting from the living room? We sniffed and sniffed, but you could have buried your head in that tree and smelled nothing but the remnant odor of the plastic that had bound it. It was just plain weird.

At least it looked good in pictures.

Want to go this route? I can’t knock it too much. It was mighty convenient. I don’t need to spell it out — you know where to look: Home Depot, Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, etc. Should you choose this option, know you will end up with a good-looking, bound-for-your-convenience tree, and your holidays will still be lovely. But you may want to invest in some scented candles.

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Years 3 & 4: Avoidance!

With an exhausting string of holiday travel, pregnancy and a newborn baby, I couldn’t face it. These were the years of the simple swag from Trader Joe’s. That’s right — I couldn’t even trouble myself with getting an actual wreath. I can’t blame Oregon.

Want to go this route? A local grocery store will take care of you, or you can participate in one of many holiday fundraisers. Some organizations sell wreaths at this time of year; they look good, and you help out a great cause. 

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Our most beautiful tree yet. Just don't expect to breathe near it.

 Year 5: Overkill

Our first year as Salemites! We moved here during the summer of 2012, and also purchased our first home. There’s nothing like a fresh start as a newly minted homeowner to make you really overdo it at the holidays.

It was Thanksgiving weekend. With our 1-year-old in tow, we found one of the multiple Christmas tree farms on the outskirts of Salem. The nice owner gave us a rundown of our options: Noble Firs are most popular, Douglas Firs are a no-fail crowd-pleaser, and Grand Firs have the best scent (at least according to him). What was that? It smells good, you say? With vivid memories of our scentless tree, we hastened to the smelliest trees on the farm. We chose one. And it was big. Really big. Wouldn’t it look fabulous in our front window? We waved over the proprietor, who arrived with a chainsaw, and we had our tree in seconds. We had to buy a new stand, but no matter. It was worth it!

I can’t lie — it was a pretty tree. It was full, it was sappy (I’ve decided this is an annoying but essential component) and we’d supported a local farm. And did the thing smell like Christmas?

Oh, did it smell. At first, we couldn’t have been more pleased. Then half an hour went by, and it started to wear thin. “Does it smell a little too much?” I asked my husband.

“Nah, it’s perfect! It smells like the holidays!” he replied. An hour in, I had a headache and I opened the front door because the freezing, damp December air was preferable. I might have gone for “air stagnation advisory air” over that smell. The scent of holiday cheer choked me out of my living room. Our toddler even seemed suspicious of that beast of a tree, with its aggressively festive odor.

I think it wore off a bit. Or maybe we just grew accustomed to walking around immersed in pine. But we were actually relieved when local Boy Scouts came to cart that thing off. We loved the process of going to find the tree, but maybe next time we’d do something a bit … less.

Want to go this route? I actually highly recommend supporting a local farm when choosing a tree. It was a lot of fun. A reasonable level of effort, and a nice happy medium between the national forest and the box store. This helpful website provides a list of Christmas tree farms near Salem. Incidentally, if you’re interested in buying a live tree that you can plant after the holidays, many farms offer that option.

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We go the simple route, and get something more cozy.

Year 6: Less is More

The tree lot. We hadn’t tried the obvious yet, so we were eager to give it a go. I wanted our tree early in the season, and I wanted a happy medium, not a production. The tree lot seemed the perfect solution. As I curled up in an armchair with our new 4-month-old baby, I told my husband to visit the tree lot in front of LifeSource. The size requirement: it had to be small enough to easily fit on top of his compact sedan. The tree wouldn’t go in our front window, but in the small sitting room I use every morning for coffee and quiet. Christmas would be cozy, not grand.

This ended up being my favorite tree yet. The purchase process (at least for me) was minimal, but the tree itself was low-maintenance, pretty and much more approachable by toddler standards. I know plenty of folks who love the splendor and funof a big ol’ tree that grazes their ceiling. I totally get it. But there was something about that modest tree twinkling in the darkness that felt right for us.

Want to go this route? Christmas tree lots begin to crop up all around Salem right after Thanksgiving. This is what I grew up doing, and honestly, it’s a pretty great option. You don’t get to visit an actual farm, but in many cases you still support Oregon’s tree farmers, or possibly an organization conducting a tree-lot fundraiser.    

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 Year 7: TBD

As much as I enjoyed sitting at home with a cup of coffee until my husband arrived with our understated tree, I kind of missed being part of the action as well. And this year, it seems like our 3-year-old should weigh in on the selection process as well. So I imagine we’ll do the most Salem-y thing you can do, and head back to a local Christmas tree farm.

But we will not, I repeat, will not stand there like Clark Griswold and say to ourselves, “That’ll fit, right?  It’s not too tall, is it?” If it looks like it might be too tall, it is. We’ll go for a Noble Fir or a good, reliable Doug Fir. We’ll likely go cozy again, but we’ll make an outing of it. Fire up the cocoa, and haul out the ornaments. I’m ready to create a family tradition worth repeating this year.

And when the holidays are over? Multiple Boy Scout Troops in the Salem area often conduct fundraisers in the past where they pick up your tree (or operate a drop site) and recycle it for you. This is a cool way to make sure your tree is disposed of properly while supporting a local group. Come December, keep an eye on local newspapers, TV stations or the Marion County Recycling and Disposal Guide for information.

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Anne Lapour is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer. Decorating the Christmas tree — be it full or sparse — is one of her favorite holiday traditions, along with peppermint bark, the lights at Mission Mill and repeat viewings of “Love Actually.”