Some traditions just slow to die

Published 9:14 pm Tuesday, December 13, 2016

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Traditions are slow to die at our house, and none more so than the Christmas tree.

Growing up in the country, few families would ever have dreamed of having anything than a red cedar tree. They were right shape, they smelled incredibly good and throughout much of Virginia, they were plentiful. A half century ago every farm had fenced-in livestock. Those fences meant meant fence uncultivated fence rows, which were prime real estate for volunteer cedar trees. If you knew a farmer, or owned a farm, a tree was generally yours for the asking.

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Cedars do have some negative characteristics. They’re prickly even when freshly cut and downright annoying once they begin drying out. By the time we took a tree out of the house each year after Christmas, it would shed needles from the living room to the front porch. It seemed to take forever to get all the stray needles out of wool rugs.

And then, there were the bagworms that make cedars their winter home. Bring a cedar tree into the house, let it warm up, and out come the insects.

We tolerated it all because Christmas just didn’t seem like Christmas without a cedar.

But it became increasingly difficult to keep the tradition. By the time we moved back to Smithfield in the early 1970s, fence rows were becoming scarce and so were cedars. For a couple of years, the new Smithfield Bypass right-of-way offered small, nicely shaped cedar trees. VDOT didn’t mind at that point and the trees were used by many people for a few Christmases. The bypass trees even provided the town with its “official” tree for several years. The practice ended when somebody cut a whole truck load one year to sell, prompting VDOT — and local police — to clamp down on the practice.

We even tried growing our own cedars for a while. A landowner let me dig up several dozen tiny cedars growing in a fallow pasture. I planted a row of them as a windbreak and property boundary, then planted about a half dozen more where they might grow into Christmas trees, to be cut as they matured. The windbreak trees are still there, but the would-be Christmas trees never amounted to much and we abandoned that experiment.

Today, some rural families still cut cedar trees each year, but for most of us, it has become a choice of using plastic or nursery trees. We tried plastic for a few years, but it just never seemed quite right and eventually we went back to cut trees purchased from nurseries.

Last year, we found what appears to be the best compromise available. It’s a Carolina Sapphire Cypress. We have bought ours from the Zuni Tree and Alpaca Farm, but they’re becoming more popular and increasingly available other places as well.

The tree has a fragrance that is somewhat similar to a cedar and a lot stronger than spruce or fir. It also has a much softer needle and sheds far more slowly than the red cedars of yore.

No one can know how long we’ll continue the live tree tradition, but for now, the living room smells a lot like Christmas, and I’m not having to comb the countryside looking for a tree.