For the past few years on Thanksgiving weekend, my husband and I, with our two kids in tow, have driven 45 minutes to a Christmas tree farm so that we can cut down our very own tree. The experience is never as raucous as the one the Griswolds go through in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation—even with the two boys egging my husband on to chop down the biggest tree they can find—but it’s also never as smooth as I think it should be. Here are all the ways we’re going to nail it—next year.
1. Measure before you leave the house.
You should have a general idea of where you’re going to place your tree before you head to the farm, so that you can measure the space in anticipation of the tree. Be sure to account for both the tree’s height and width.
2. Don’t forget cash.
While some farms will accept credit cards, others don’t, so it’s best to just make a quick ATM stop beforehand. At our preferred farm, we fork over a deposit for a rental saw (we get the money back when we return it), tip the guy who loads our tree onto a tractor and drives it closer to our car, tip another guy who binds our tree in netting and ties it to the roof of our car, and pay for the tree—all in cash.
3. Dress appropriately.
Trust me, you’re going to be walking around outside for a while—long enough to feel the cold in your bones. It always takes longer than you think to find the one, so be sure to wear layers. And make sure to bring a pair of gloves—the thicker and tougher, the better. Gloves will protect you from the cold, and more important, from the tree’s sharp needles.
4. Pack a blanket.
You’re going to get down and dirty, literally, when you cut down your tree. It’s hard work (at least as far as I can tell from watching my husband do it), and you’ll need to kneel or lie down on the ground to saw properly. A blanket to lie on or a piece of cardboard to kneel on makes the whole process a little more comfortable and neat.
5. Consider an electric saw.
This year, we saw a few people toting their own electric saws at the farm. I sensed my husband, who prefers old-school manual labor over power tools, eyeing them with disapproval. Cue 30 minutes later: He’s on the ground, cursing under his breath and struggling with the rental saw. Not so judge-y anymore.
6. Check for wildlife.
We spotted a perfect tree early on, but upon closer inspection, we noticed a small nest in the interior of the tree. We decided to leave it be, neither of us eager to steal someone else’s home. Another good-looking tree from afar turned out, up close, to have a plethora of spiders, a deal-breaker in my house of boys who love all manner of creep-crawlies, except for spiders. All of which is to say, check the tree for wildlife before you take it home.
7. Smell the tree.
Just because it’s alive doesn’t mean it will have that pine-fresh scent. (Ours doesn’t.) If you’re adamant that your Christmas tree have that great, sharp scent, consider firs. (See How to Pick Your Perfect Christmas Tree.)
8. Give the tree a checkup.
And just because it’s growing on a farm doesn’t mean it’s healthy. In fact, on our stroll through the farm, we spied quite a few that already exhibited a troubling number of brown needles. Run your gloved hand along a branch, if the needles come off easily, move on. Same goes for brittle branches that easily break.
9. Settle on a strategy—and stick to it.
Our X-mas tree M.O. is much like our Vegas buffet M.O.: Do a round to survey what’s available, keeping track of viable options, then go back to find the one. My husband and I are lucky that we happen to have the same philosophy, but other people may prefer different strategies—e.g., set a timer; stipulate you’ll only search half the farm; look just for spruces, etc. Make sure you and whoever’s tree-shopping with you agree on the strategy before you get to the farm to avoid misunderstanding and aggravation.
10. Bring a tarp.
You don’t have to (we didn’t), but if you’re concerned about the tree scratching the roof of your car, you should bring along a tarp or moving blanket to protect your car from sharp branches. And if you plan to transport it home in the trunk of your car, you should definitely line it first to catch the needles. With a little preparation, you’ll save yourself a big clean-up.
For more Christmas inspiration, see: