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2004-11-30 - 2:54 p.m.

With a gargling huff, the tangled mess of green limbs flopped into the back of my uncle’s big blue truck. The evergreen seemed to clash with bright neon, and even more so with the purple running lights installed beneath the chassis.

“Best tree we ever had.”

“Better be. I’m going to be sucking sap out from underneath my fingernails for weeks.”

“Best tree ever.”

Out in the boonies of Connecticut, away from the ivy halls of New Haven, the well insured towers of Hartford, and the nannies pushing MacLaren strollers past adorably named coffee shops in Darien, harvest season rings on every corner, at every farm. Pumpkins run rampant over the countryside throughout October. Every kind of fruit, often times in a real cornucopia, is peddled in November, and finally, as the snow settles, the tree farms open up, handing out hacksaws and pouring hard cider. Not the best combination, but it makes for a lot of memories.

The year usually goes by without too many family traditions. There were no game nights, or even all family Sunday post 1989. But Christmas, in each and every way is riddled with rites and regalia. Most important among those various pagan rituals, is the Tree hunt.

Each year a sizable contingent of the clan saddles up the SUV’s and rides out into the snow to chop down a few trunks. Once the convoy arrives in total, and this does take some time, even longer before the advent of cell phones, the aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins and random derelicts we seem to pick up come trundling out like clowns leaping from a VW bug after the juggler loosed a pungent fart.

The tree farms never look too official: a large white house in need of a new coat of paint in front of row after row of pines. Along the side, a lanky elder statesman emerges draped in saws on each arm. His wife would bring the cider, a liquid I was always suspicious of as a child. Dark thick brown goo that I, for some reason, wasn’t allowed to drink. Even now real cider seems decadent and lascivious.

Actually lying down in the snow and clawing at tree bark with a dull blade is a key element in what my father would refer to as the fun of the experience. Throughout my youth I enjoyed this scene as audience member, watching with strange confusion as Dad participated in the only real exercise of the entire year. Once I matriculated in high school though, I was expected to go tandem on the tree death, despite having similar physical capacities to the octogenarian who tossed us the instruments of torture in the first place.

Almost the entire family ends up playing lumberjack at some point, but when you’re part of our particular branch, the challenge is somewhat steeper. Our house happened to come with a large living room with high ceilings running all the way to roof. What this means is it somehow became expected that we would find, knock down and decorate a seventeen-foot monstrosity that could eat or at least crush small children, dogs and generally anything that angered the beast. While my Aunt Judy takes a minute to hack through the forearm sized trunk of her tree, my father and I would spend an hour dutifully nibbling off a tree that could fit fill out my pants. Were we not fueled by cider and pixie-sticks respectively, the battle would rage into the witching hours.

But no matter what the torture, the moment it falls, and it’s ours, the most sacred of traditions must follow.

“I’m telling you. Best tree ever.”

I’ll be getting a tree for my apartment this year. It will be the first time I’ve had a tree that was my tree. I’m sure I find some peddler on the corner dishing out evergreens like they came from a vending machine: pre-cut, pre-wrapped, possibly with a tag on one of the branches that details washing instructions. I’ll be happy to have it there, until I have to bring it down, at least, but there won’t be sap under my fingernails. Somehow that doesn’t feel right.

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