Cut-Your-Own Christmas Tree

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Timeless holiday tradition: Ursula and Virgil Collins-Laine pick the perfect balsam.

Timeless holiday tradition: Ursula and Virgil Collins-Laine pick the perfect balsam.

The view from "Uncle Tim's," Canaan, New Hampshire

The view from "Uncle Tim's," Canaan, New Hampshire

All photos/art by Lisa Sacco

For 10 years, now, our family has been getting our Christmas trees from a little mom-and-pop tree farm over on South Road in Canaan, New Hampshire. Part of the ritual is getting there.

We drive the back way on a series of marked and unmarked dirt roads, which gives the trip a kind of over-the-river-and-through-the-woods feeling. Since we go out that way only once a year, we’re never completely sure of all the turns, and we almost feel like cheering when the hand-painted wooden sign for the tree farm shows up at the corner of the last one.

“Uncle Tim’s” isn’t one of those new destination tree farms. It doesn’t offer sleighrides or caroling or visits from Santa, or any tie-ins with some nearby country inn. The trees grow unevenly on hilly, scrappy land, and the dirt road up in there can be rough. But we always wait until snow blankets the ground, and if the weather’s clear, we get a full-on view of Mount Cardigan to the east, which looks especially alpine and romantic in winter.

When we started getting our trees there, Tim and LeeAnn Lucia ran the operation together, although the land had come down in Tim’s family and the tree work was mostly his. He’d started putting in seedlings back in the ’80s, settling on species that could handle the sandy soil: balsam and Fraser fir and some Scotch pine. From the beginning, the trees were a sideline to their day jobs. But Tim lost his job as a commuter-plane pilot, so he ramped up the tree business, along with a garden center in the village. It takes seven to nine years for seedlings to grow into saleable trees, and Tim was able to sell trees for only a few years before he died suddenly of a heart attack, in 1999.

A lot of us thought LeeAnn would shut the tree farm down, but the sign came out again the next November, and it’s come out every year since. High-school kids help with the mowing and pruning. She sells somewhere around 150 trees in a season, at $22 for a seven-foot balsam last year — a tiny fraction of the 110,000 native trees sold in the state each year, most of them by wholesalers. “Not enough to pay the groceries,” she says, “but enough to help pay the taxes.” Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing LeeAnn, in jeans and a heavy wool shirt, sitting in a lawn chair next to a little fire up at the edge of the field.

This past year, my children, Ursula and Virgil, were excited about starting a new tradition: picking out a second, miniature tree to leave outside and trim with popcorn and seed to feed the birds. We watched them grab a bow saw from the bucket next to the fire and trudge off through the snowy rows. Then we watched them argue and finally decide on a little tree, cut it themselves, and drag it back to the car, even with the snow, in places, reaching Virgil’s waist. As we paid, we waved to a woman named Beth, whom we recognized from Town Meeting. Our friends Dave and Marilyn were driving up the rough road, coming for their tree, and it felt like a neighborhood out in the woods.

Christmas is about ritual and community, old stories and new beginnings. One of our rituals and a part of our community, old stories and new beginnings. One of our rituals and a part of our community is shifting: After nine years of running it alone, LeeAnn has sold the property to a couple from Pennsylvania, who hope to keep the tree farm going. LeeAnn is moving to upstate New York. She’s engaged to a man who — she didn’t know this when she met him — happens to grow Christmas trees. They’ll be working together. “It’s really good land,” she says.

I’m tempted to drive over there and see it, and wish her merry Christmas.


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