O Christmas Tree

My freshman year of college, a friend of mine installed a real Christmas tree in his dorm. He and his roommates used it as the centerpiece of a Christmas-themed party complete with rainbow-colored Christmas lights duct taped to the walls and vodka-spiked eggnog in red plastic bowls. He hoped, I believe, that this elaborate stunt would attract women. It did, in fact, attract at least one woman: me.

This Christmas tree enthralled me. I came and studied in his room regularly just to inhale its woody scent and run my fingers along its soft, slippery needles.

When I was growing up, my Chinese immigrant family wholeheartedly embraced American holidays with a willingness to practice any and every supposedly American tradition. On Thanksgiving, our turkey was stuffed with rice and covered with bacon. (Americans love bacon, right?) Fourth of July consisted of Korean-style barbeque ribs and backyard Chinatown fireworks. (Fire hazard be damned.) But we always put up a plastic Christmas tree instead of a real one because even we didn’t believe that Americans put trees in their houses.

But they do. Americans purchased 31.3 million Christmas trees my freshman year, 2007, spending $1.3 billion. German immigrants brought the custom over in the early 19th century, and by 1930, nearly all American children had a tree at home. Americans were the first to supersize Christmas trees from small four-foot table-top centerpieces to great floor-to-ceiling trees of eight, ten — or more — feet.

This affinity for Christmas trees quickly depleted the supply of wild trees available. To feed some of this frenzied demand, W.V. McGalliard, a farmer from Mercer County, N.J., established the first Christmas tree farm in 1901, planting 25,000 Norway Spruce saplings.

The story of Broken Arrow Nursery, a 24-acre Christmas tree farm perched on the rolling slopes of Mount Carmel in Hamden, CT, also began with Norway Spruce — specifically with the 250 saplings Richard Jaynes GRD ’61 received in 1947 at the age of 11 as a prize for winning a poultry contest sponsored by 4-H, a national student farmer’s association. He has raised and sold Christmas trees every year since his first harvest, even when he had to leave the bulk of the work to his parents while completing an undergraduate degree at Wesleyan and a Ph.D. in Botany at Yale.

I meet Richard at his farm a few days after Thanksgiving, when Christmas trees usually go on sale, in the cozy dining room of his house, which is nestled right next to the farm. He leans back nonchalantly against a wooden chair and sips a bottle of Sanders beer. Every once in a while he stops to smile encouragingly at me.

Richard attributes his good spirits to the nature of his customers. “Can you think of any other business where the customers are as upbeat or happy? If it’s snowing a bit, all the better,” he says. He knows many of the families who come year after year to pick out their Christmas trees — some for up to four generations. As for his personal preferences, “I’m now happy with a Charlie Brown Trees,” he says, referring to the misfit trees that nobody wants but still deserve to be loved.

Richard’s son Burton Jaynes GRD ’88 leads me on a walk through the farm. Burton also earned a Ph.D. from Yale (in Chemistry) and worked for 19 years at Pfizer; he had achieved a management position there before deciding to return to his roots at the farm four years ago.

Burton’s voice is gentle but deliberate, like the sound of footsteps upon damp, fallen leaves. His bright hazel eyes sparkle behind rim-less glasses as he patiently explains how to identify different species of trees. The Blue Spruce, which have a blue-green tint, are stiff and sharp; the stiffness makes them good for hanging ornaments. “When you touch a Blue Spruce you’ll know it,” he says.

I reach out and touch a nearby branch. The silvery blue-green needles poke into my hand like the teeth of a hard, plastic hairbrush.

“Blue Spruce?” I guess.

“Ah! Very good!” he responds joyously.

Then there are the White Pine, whose needles are long and soft like the bristle of brush-type drumsticks. Burt’s favorite species are the two most fragrant — the Fraser and the Balsam Fir. “They just smell like a Christmas tree,” he says. They’re also Broken Arrow’s biggest sellers.

Burton has vivid memories of tending to this land as a boy, when he would help his father clear it and plant trees. Like his father, his favorite part of the business is this season, when families come out to pick their trees in time for Christmas. “People are generous in words and spirit,” he says.

He gets to know the preferences of his regular customers. “There’s somebody who comes every year to get a really big White Pine,” he says. “Every year when I prune the White Pine, I think of him, this man in my mind.” He pauses, then remembers, “he was just in yesterday.”

Today, two of Broken Arrow’s other regular customers, Maria and Michael Madonick, have brought their two children, four-and-a-half-year-old Gina and two-and-a-half-year-old Michael, to the farm. “They probably haven’t gotten coloring books yet,” Burton mutters to himself and, in an instant, reappears with two books titled “Welcome to our Christmas Tree Farm.” The Madonicks moved to North Haven in December five years ago. Though their boxes were still unpacked, they came here for a tree and have been coming back ever since. Each year, their tree is particularly large — a 10-footer. They have more than one occasion to celebrate. “Did you tell her that your birthday is on Christmas?” Michael says to Maria, who blushes.

After the Madonicks leave, Burton and I continue on a path toward a ridge high on the Mount Carmel. When we reach the ridge, a gorgeous panorama of Connecticut autumn suddenly reveals itself to me. On the drive to Broken Arrow Nursery, dappled woods and clapboard houses hid the gradual ascent up Mount Carmel. But here with Burton, I can see the top of Sleeping Giant Ridge and West Rock in the distance and other hills behind them cloaked in withering yellow grass and bare sandy brown trees. The spry greenness of the Christmas trees around me poses a stark contrast to the dead and dying fall.

Suddenly, I badly want a Christmas tree of my own. I yearn to once again run my fingers along slippery needles and inhale the scent of pine. I picture looking up at the tree from my laptop after a particularly difficult stretch of studying and finding peace and joy from its presence. Yet this image seems hollow; the Christmas tree seems out of place. In my solitary dorm room, it’s missing the family to surround it, without which no Christmas tree would be real.

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