Every year after Thanksgiving, sometimes as late as the first week in December, my wife and I go out to a local Christmas tree farm in search of the perfect tree, or I should say I accompany my wife in her search for that perfect tree. My wife, you see, has a picture in her mind, a kind of Platonic ideal of what a Christmas tree should be—indeed what a Christmas tree must be. It is a template against which any merely material manifestation must be matched.
First of all it must be a Frasier Fir, not a Douglas, not a Spruce, not a Scotch Pine, only a Frasier Fir. It must be at least seven feet tall, but not too close to eight. It must be slender, but it must have a little heft at the bottom, because we will be standing it in an old antique crock, and the heft at the bottom will keep it upright. It must not, on the other hand, have too much heft at the bottom. It must taper gradually, with no heavy spots or gaps in the branches.
This is the ideal we pursue each year. Some years we come close; some years we come very close. Some years we settle for something less than she'd like. But in no year does the reality ever completely match the idea of tree. This year was no exception. In fact this year we may have strayed further from the ideal of "Christmas tree" than ever before.
The tree farm is on Route 857 right outside of Fairchance, Pennsylvania on the road to Morgantown, West Virginia. They have trees of all species. They have some already cut down, or, if you prefer, you can trek out onto the farm and hunt between rows and rows of trees of all sizes and shapes, searching to your heart's content for the tree in your mind. When you find it, you tag it, go back to the combination barn/office, and someone will go out with you and cut it down. Lug it back to the barn, shake it, tie it in a tight roll, and lash it to (in our case) the roof of your Jeep. We, of course, always choose to search.
The farm's terrain is hilly, and hiking around the rows of trees, while invigorating at first, can quickly become exhausting, especially if you've spent a lot of time reading or watching television. When the weather has been rainy, or if there's been snow and then a thaw, the ground can become swampy and pull like quicksand at your insulated boots. When it gets cold, the winds on the hill seem to blow right through your carefully layered clothing. When it's a warm day, you perspire some, but it isn't unpleasant out in the sunshine, at least for the first fifteen minutes. Trouble is there aren't all that many warm, sunny days in Western Pennsylvania at tree choosing time, and besides choosing time never clocks in at under an hour.
When we got to the farm this year, the weather was neither too cold nor too warm, and it wouldn't have been bad for a nice little stroll around the trees. But it turned out that the weather really didn't matter. It turned out that when we asked where we might begin out search for the Frasier of the mind, they really didn't have a very large selection to choose from out on the farm, not of Frasiers, anyway. In fact, most of what they had that was in decent shape was cut down already and hung on chains from hooks in the barn.
I left my wife to look at what was there and parked myself in the Jeep, turned on my iPod, and prepared to wait. My wife likes to deliberate, to look everything over carefully, mull over all the details, match each and every candidate to her ideal image, before she makes any commitment. I watched as she walked slowly down the rows of hanging trees, stopping when she came to one that might do, examining, and then walking on. After awhile, she spoke to one of the men working there; he pointed up to the hillside across the road, and handed her a tag. I turned off the iPod. It seemed we were about to go out to the uncut trees to pursue the quest.
But no, they continued talking. Then she went back to one of the hanging trees, and began checking it out again. I got out of the car and went over to the tree, not so much to give any advice or opinion, since I, of course, have not the idea of the tree, but to make ready to move the hunt out to the hillside.
"He says there isn't much out there. All the really nice Frasiers are in here." She was still holding the tag.
"So? What are we doing?" I am not the most patient of people.
"Well, this one isn't too bad."
"Looks fine to me." But what do I know, I thought. "We go out hunting, this one's liable to be gone by the time we get back. Bird in the hand, and all that."
"Let's just take a quick look, as long as we're here."
Quick look, I thought. Right. A half hour later we were back for the tree. They were right; the hillside rows were indeed nearly depleted. The tree is home, sitting in the crock in the living room, waiting for decoration. It's a little too hefty at the bottom. It has a gap or two in the upper branches, and on the whole, it isn't really what you'd call slender. The idea of Christmas tree it is not. The idea of tree is still out there, waiting for next Christmas.
Come December 12, on the other hand, I will be lighting the first of the candles in my idea of a menorah, one we don't have to search for every year, but one that will sit on a table right across the room from the almost but never quite ideal of the Christmas Tree.