My husband Robin is Jewish. Growing up his family would sometimes put up a fake Christmas tree around Hanukkah time. (The sheer force of Christmas in this country is hard to deny and let’s be honest – the twinkling lights are fun and cozy, especially on those cold winter nights in Wisconsin.)
I, on the other hand, grew up tromping through the snow of rural Christmas tree farms with my family, saw in hand. My sister and I took on the duty of Tree Picker very seriously and would survey what felt like every tree on the farm before settling on The One – which usually always clocked out at around 12 feet tall and was so big I always ended up sweating by the time we hauled the thing back to our car.
But the effort was always worth it when the tree was up, the scent of fresh pine engulfing the room, the fire in the corner, hot cocoa in hand… I could never imagine having a fake tree. A trek to the basement instead of a 3-mile hike through snow? Where would the smell of pine come? Nope, not for me.
For the very first Christmas in our new apartment after moving to San Francisco, I wanted to give Robin a real tree. I wanted our tiny home to be engulfed in that scent of fresh pine, I wanted to teach him the art of being a Tree Picker, how to walk around and point at trees saying “that one’s too small, too Charlie Brown… that one is shaped funny… no, those branches aren’t quite right...” And to fall in love with all the traditions I had as a child.
So I took him to Clancy’s Christmas Tree Farm in San Francisco, which happened to be in our neighborhood. We drove over and when we stepped out of the car there was a scent of pine in the air. String lights were up and twinkling, families with dogs were loading up tree on top of cars. It felt like Christmas, albeit a bit warmer than I was used to, but still like a proper Christmas.
We were broke that year – moving to San Francisco right out of college will do that to you. And I was naive in thinking that just because our family spent $25 on a 12-foot tree in the 90’s in Wisconsin, that it would be incredibly affordable to buy a 4-foot tree in California. I remember thinking about how the stand I bought was surely going to be more expensive than the tree.
At the grocery store I double and tripled checked prices against brands, shaving off 12 cents here and 30 cents there. Anything to keep our expenses down since we didn’t have a lot to work with back then. But for the entire time that the nice Clancy’s tree guy was helping us measure trees and shove The One through one of the giant tree wrapper machines, I never thought to once ask what the prices of trees were.
So, as you can imagine, when we were rung up and our total was $80 something dollars I nearly choked. (Since then I have learned to expect everything to be more expensive in California, that moment being one of the key lessons.) We absolutely should not have spent almost a $100 a tree but it was already wrapped up and my Midwestern roots were far too polite to say “PUT IT BACK! PUT IT BACK!”
Of course, back in our apartment, we had a blast decorating the tree. I loved showing Robin all my ornaments and my cat loved eating the tree branches. At night it looked beautiful next to our lit menorah and it did, indeed, make our apartment smell like an evergreen forest. But I spent that entire Christmas thinking “this is a VERY expensive fresh pine smell.”
That following January when all the holiday stuff goes on sale, I bought a fake tree from Target for $45 and that’s the one that now lives under our bed 11 months of the year. I still don’t like being a fake tree person. It feels like a betrayal to my younger self (I also swore off suburbs, am I accidentally going to find myself living in a cookie-cutter house in 10 years?) Nope, can’t happen.
So, each December Robin and I pay a visit to Clancy’s. I get dressed up in a Christmas sweater, we head over at dusk so I can soak in all the twinkle lights and pine smells and look longingly at the 12 foot trees I wish I could squeeze into my apartment.
Instead of bringing one home, I buy us some freshly cut garland branches to style in front of our TV. Not quite the same as a real tree, but I get fresh pine smells and a portion of Real Tree in my home. It makes a wonderful yearly San Francisco Christmas tradition. And let’s be honest – a fake tree is so much easier to manage in a small space. But rest assured, if it ever snows in San Francisco, I’ll trek over to Clancy’s and haul home a 12-foot tree.