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Tannenbaum Trek

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Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, electrical consumption in the valley suddenly rivaled that of a city like, say, Hong Kong or Las Vegas, as twinkling lights of all sizes and colors suddenly sprouted from houses and landscaping. What just a few days ago were relatively nondescript trees and shrubs have now become miniature casino billboards.

Add those to the strange prevalence of inflatable lawn ornaments—which can lead to some embarrassing encounters between Santa and his reindeer if a wind comes up—and it seems like marking Christmas requires an electrical plug.

But there are still some vestiges of the old-fashioned Christmas: homebaked cookies, hot spiced cider, children writing letters to Santa Claus and the tannenbaum. That's right, ye old Christmas tree.

Leave it to those crazy Germans to turn a pagan symbol used to mark the winter solstice into an internationally recognized symbol of Christmas. German immigrants to the United States brought their traditional celebration with them, but until the late 1800s, most of their American neighbors just thought they had enjoyed a little too much holiday nog.

But eventually, the decorated tree caught on as the nation began to shake off its Puritanical roots (people used to be fined for daring to hang decorations). Generations have made it a tradition to head out into the woods to cut down a tree each year, braving snow, cold and the threat of hypothermia.

For years, my own family was among those trudging through the woods, saw in hand, as my mother scoured the hillside, continually changing her mind as to her favorite tree. When we finally made our way back to "that one tree over there," we faced the task of convincing my mother that just because it looked small next to the other trees, the 20-foot-tall fir was, in fact, too big for our living room.

Once we had located a more suitable tree, my father would inevitably end up either buried to his waste in a tree well, or precariously perched on a branch of the same tree he was cutting down. Either way, it always led to some quality mocking from those of us watching the process.

We would drag the tree back to the car before joining fellow tree-hunting friends for a winter picnic, where we would warm ourselves with homemade chili and hot chocolate.

After all that hard work and family bonding, that tree—bent and bare as it may have been—was the most beautiful tree ever. Even if it was still too tall for the room and my father had to drill holes for a sort of limb transplant to fill in the blank spots.

The tradition continues as families choose to pass the multitude of tree lots with their perfectly shaped trees and instead head out to the woods in search of the perfect tree.

Each year the Boise and Payette national forests are deluged by thousands in search of a tree permit, which are required to take home an evergreen.

The forests began selling Christmas tree permits on Nov. 22 and will continue through Dec. 24. For just $10, permit holders can wander both forests to find this season's tree.

Trees must be no taller than 12 feet, and each tree taken needs its own permit, which are limited to three per family. Permits are available at district offices on both forests, as well as numerous retailers across the region, and each comes with valuable information on which areas of the forest are open to Christmas tree harvesting.

Also, don't forget to take along the necessities, like some food and water in case your day trip turns into something more. Let people know the area you're heading for, and above all, don't forget a saw and shovel. Digging out a tree by hand and cutting it with a pocket knife is harder than you might think.

For a complete listing of regulations, as well as locations to buy permits, check out the link on the Boise National Forest Web site at fs.usda.gov/boise.

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