My first christmas tree memory involves my mother crying.
The tree consumed the entire corner of our living room, the trunk screwed into a green and red base, and its branches stretched from window to window. One night, I heard a loud cracking noise. I hopped out of bed thinking the Grinch had slithered into our house and stuffed our tree into his oversized bag, just like he did to Cindy Lou Who.
I tiptoed down the hall to catch the green monster red-handed. Instead, I found my mom with her face in her hands and my dad on all fours, swearing into tufts of pine needles. The tree had fallen over, smashing ornaments, splashing water and scattering needles all over the carpet.
After the late-night cleanup, the tree fell once again, and then a third time. Eventually, my dad pulled out his MacGyver skills and rigged the tree to the window trim. Finally, it remained upright. I found a Nintendo beneath it on Christmas morning.
As an adult, much to my mom’s relief, I realize that Christmas trees can be exhausting. I have to clean, dust, vacuum and rearrange furniture in my tiny bungalow in order to fit any tree—big or small, real or fake—into some nook where it won’t be in the way, blocking a door or within the reach of a curious Siberian husky puppy. Then, picking up the tree, pulling out the decorations, purchasing lights that actually work, and hauling it all home can turn the Christmas tree experience into an all-day process—or two, or more…
For some folks, however, it’s a several-year-long process. I put my tree prep blues aside and talked with a few local Christmas tree farm owners. With so many combined years of experience, each one offered a lot of useful information and tips.
Down on the Farm
For Bob Cinnamon of Cinnamon Tree Farm in Brimfield, it began as a hobby 50 years ago, after receiving encouragement from a forester. Russ and Barb Roth of Morton’s Red Barn Tree Shop began planting trees for their personal use. It turned into a few more each year, and now, they’ve been selling trees for 26 years. Richard Grady, owner of Grady’s Christmas Tree Farm in Trivoli, ended up in the business “by accident.” In the early 1950s, he planted a few trees and took them to the local grocery store to sell. Soon, people began coming out to his farm, and the rest is history. Susan Frank’s father and uncle began planting trees during World War II as a conservation effort, and started Talbott Christmas Tree Farm in Green Valley. Susan and her husband, Brian, eventually took over her family’s business.
Shirley Cinnamon of Cinnamon Tree Farm wants to make sure you buy a large enough stand to support your tree—a small stand on a large tree, she warns, can lead to disaster! Area farms offer many varieties of trees, but she recommends the Fraser fir. “They don’t take up too much space, you can hang lots of ornaments on them, and they are a nice, dark-green color.” Gabe Tongate of the Red Barn Tree Shop also recommends the top-selling Fraser fir. “They are sturdy and hearty. Fraser firs can last until March if cared for properly.” The Grady family enjoys a Scotch pine in their living room, and the Franks pick out a different variety each year.
Cinnamon also recommends taking your tree into your home in a plastic tree bag to minimize the mess. “Most people think the bags are for disposing the trees, but they are for taking the tree into your home, too.” Once inside, you can shimmy the bag down to the floor and hide it with a tree skirt. When you are ready to toss the tree, just pull the bag up and haul it out.
CINNAMON TREE FARM
17223 W. Brimfield Jubilee Road
GRADY CHRISTMAS TREE FARM
4816 S. Stone School Road
TALBOTT’S CHRISTMAS TREE FARM
14143 Christmas Tree Road
Green Valley, IL
THE RED BARN TREE SHOP
1811 W. Jefferson St.
(309) 267-4554 (Tree Plantation)
Susan Frank and other farm owners emphasize that a freshly-cut trunk will allow the tree to absorb much-needed water, especially during those first few critical days. “A cut tree trunk is like a raw wound,” notes Grady. “It will seal itself off to heal, and that won’t allow the tree to drink the water it needs.” Letting the water run dry in the stand can also cause the trunk to seal off, so consistent watering, even multiple times a day, is important to prevent a dry tree from dropping its needles all over your gifts and burrowing into your carpet.
The Christmas tree that ends up in your home, if you purchased it from a local tree farm, probably grew from saplings that came to central Illinois via nurseries ranging from Canada to North Carolina. Depending on the variety, these trees grow about a foot a year. So, that seven-foot tree strapped to the roof of your van took seven years of love and care—much longer than the hassle of taking it home and decorating it. Most farms in the area plant more trees each year than what they harvest. Cinnamon’s plants two trees for each one cut. Grady’s plants three for every tree cut. “Half of what you plant may sell,” says Grady. “Not every tree grows to be Christmas-tree quality.”
Stirring the Holiday Spirit
But choosing your tree, bringing it home and wedging it into your living room is only half the battle. Next come the lights and decorations—the source of many memories, a favorite of mine being my dad’s Clark Griswold-like attempt at exterior illumination.
In 1990, the second Christmas in our new home, my parents thought it would be a good idea to cover the 35-foot blue spruce in our front yard with tiny white lights. My mom hauled boxes and boxes of lights home. She remembers 2,400 lights; I remember more. My dad stood on the roof of his rusty red ’76 Cherokee Chief with a golf ball retriever fully extended, and meticulously wrapped all the lights around the tree from top to bottom, periodically hopping down to move the Jeep around and around the tree.
When it was finished, we turned on the lights and had our own Christmas Vacation-style ceremony. The tree was beautiful. Three days later, a winter storm hit and destroyed those perfectly placed lights. Although my dad attempted to repair the damage—again with the golf ball retriever—it was never the same. We enjoyed the holiday spirit the tree evoked nonetheless, as did our neighbors.
At Talbott’s, Frank often sees the same people, year after year, who make it a tradition to come together to pick out their tree. In addition to trees, Grady’s, Cinnamon’s and Talbott’s offer a myriad of other holiday decorations, such as wreaths, garlands, ornaments and lights. Perhaps the most extensive selection is at the Red Barn, where owner Barb Roth decorates and displays many themed trees, each with its own unique décor. All decorations are available in the shop for customers to recreate the look on their own trees at home.
Here are some suggestions for starting your own holiday tradition—or adding to the traditions you already hold dear.
- Cut your own tree. One obvious tradition is to gather up your family and head to a tree farm. The farms mentioned here offer the option of cutting the tree yourself, with all the supplies at hand. Don’t forget to dress for the weather!
- The do-it-yourself tree. This is a great way to get the whole family involved. Have each person create a set of decorations to hang. Grade-school paper chains can be upgraded from construction paper by using leftover scraps of wrapping paper. Popcorn, cranberries, a needle and thread are all you need to make a fantastic garland to wrap around your tree.
- Create a “family tree.” Go through old family snapshots and wedge them between the branches; it’s an easy way for family and friends to see photos that are not on display year-round.
- Pick a theme. Have your children take turns picking a decorating theme (sports, a color scheme, favorite cartoon character, etc.) Choosing a new theme each year can keep the decorating process exciting.
- Donate your time. The Christmas season is based on giving, so why not give some of your time to a local charity? Take your child’s homemade decorations to nursing home residents. Purchase extra trees and donate them to charity, or give them to friends and neighbors who may be in need. Take your family to a local soup kitchen to volunteer.
From growing to decorating, all the work that goes into a Christmas tree is well worth it—and a great way to create a family tradition! a&s