When I was a kid, I knew it was Christmas when after going to church on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my parents loaded up my brother, Danny, and I (and later David) into the blue, ’60s vintage Buick Skylark station wagon and drove out to Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm. It seemed like it was in the boonies of Jackson County, Mo., and to a little kid, the acreage seemed huge.
They had trees of all kinds and sizes randomly growing among the chin-high dried grass. Playing hide-and-seek and drinking hot chocolate was how my brother and I killed the time while mom and dad found The Tree.
They were usually the long-needled hippy variety, like a Scots pine. But most of all, they were gargantuan. Our vintage Crow Brothers house has a sunken living room and vaulted ceilings; a 1930s interpretation of the Tudor style. So for several years, my mom and dad (and I’m sure orders were barked at me and my brothers to either hold a door, catch a lamp or keep the wobbly, three-wheeled board from tipping while the tree was impaled on the nail in its center) would wrestle this 12- or 14- or even 16-foot beast into the end of the living room. Ropes off to either side would hold it upright and honest to goodness bulb lights (the kind you screwed in) made it a magical thing. As an adult, the tree wasn’t that big, really, but from the point of view of a 5- or 6-year-old, it was Empire State Building tall.
The top was impossibly high up, and dad would have to stretch from the top of the ladder to get the angel in place. From old photos, you can almost tell our ages by how high up the tree the density of ornaments begins to thin dramatically. In the early years the girdle of salt dough angles and cotton ball Santas from Montessori school were concentrated, heavily, at about 3 to 4 feet from the floor. As we matured, so did the ornament selection (and the placement).
It was fun to go out and help cut down the tree, drag it to the car, lash it on and haul it home. Today, just as with most of the farm things we buy—be they veggies, fruits or meat—Christmas trees are a long way removed from the soil from which they grew.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, you can do the drive-up thing and get a “fresh tree” sold in a nylon hair net unloaded only a few days ago from the back of a big rig. Or you can make getting your tree an adventure AND do your small part to help our forests stay healthy and go cut your own.
For $10, some gas and a thermos of hot chocolate you can go hunt your very own wild Christmas tree in the mountains along the Front Range. Specifically in the Clear Creek Ranger District (303.567.3000) and the Pickle Gulch Group Camping Area north of Black Hawk, the Buffalo Creek area an hour west of Denver and the South Platte Ranger District West of Morrison (303.275.5610).
Different districts have slightly different permitting procedures and they sometimes sell out, so give them a call first. By making the trip and cutting down your own baby lodge pole pine—the classic Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree—you’re not only helping to thin nearby forests filled with overcrowded trees that pose an increasing wildfire risk, but you could be starting a family tradition.
And sure, your Honda Element may not be a classic Buick Skylark station wagon, but the kids won’t know the difference. They won’t care about helping the forest, either. They’ll just get a kick (and a memory) out of running around in the forest while mom and dad play lumberjacks and fell one for the living room.