Sun glints low in the winter sky, filtering through the trees creating an ethereal atmosphere through the lightly forming mist. Ground damp with the falling dew, moisture sucked from the air and deposited on the paths, the rooftops and the driveway down to the Christmas Tree Farm.
A busy scene, with cars parked at a jaunty angle on the steep farmyard slope, car boots open, roof racks tied with rope, an incarcerated barking dog breathing heavily on the misted up window. Wellies on, for even if just entering the tree-barn, the spirit of the farm visit must be kept alive.
On entering the open-fronted barn, excited chatter emanates from its bowels. On the left, Norway Spruce, full and bushy, dark bluey-green with a hint of violet, branches thrusting slightly skyward, dense and pungent, pine fresh, and spiky to the touch. On the right, the Nordman Fir, expensive, statuesque and stately, silvery green with a hint of turquoise, each needle defined and organised into a tessalated pattern by nature, branches poking sideways and fun-like, inviting temptation to adorn. Soft to the touch, needles smooth like chain-mail, linking together and only ruffled one-way like a dog’s coat.
Decisions. They have to be made. Children in heightened states of excitement dive into the green jungle of ready-cut trees, pulling out a possibility, twirling it round like a spinning top and then discarding – not tall enough, wide enough, conical in shape enough. Each taste different, not realising that when removed from its faithful counterparts and isolated in the home, decorated with family favourites, it is the perfect tree ready to be pronounced the best Christmas tree – ever.
Stacked up trees, leaning against the slatted wooden walls of the barn, graded roughly in height, silent and waiting. An old black and white sheep dog, tail wagging greets excited visitors, delighted by the constant attention and extra pats. Dog-breath vapour in the cold damp air, tail causing a small breeze and knee-level creating a slight chill just above the welly-line.
In the corner, stacked together, tress with big wooden labels, marked with a name and a date, trees pre-chosen whilst growing in the plantation, waiting silently, untouched until some little bright face in a woolly hat and mittens comes to claim his own. Outside in the yard, more labelled trees, all waiting for an owner who has spent the winter so far, imagining the tree growing in the field, imagining the tree in the rain and the wind, the sun and the mist, the light and the dark, the snow and the frost, steady and upright in the frozen ground. A tree, seen in the mind’s eye long before the reality of its being adorns a corner of the lounge. Dare it be suggested that this tree, treated like a welcome guest, takes pride of place at the head of the family celebration, looking down on the family to whom it now belongs, in a majestic and peace-giving way. For something so naturally beautiful, really needs no adornment, but, as is the way of Christmas, it gets a sprinkling of sparkle and shine, glitter and gold, tinsel and treats.
The yard, surrounded by other ramshackle authentic barns and outbuildings, smells of a heady mix of wood and coal smoke pouring from the chimney of a rambling outdated bungalow. One imagines that inside things have not changed for 50 years, the kitchen table, the dog basket in front of the aga stove. Warm wintry smells fill the cold damp air, the smell of comfort, of evenings by the fire, of Gran’s house and the ?? fire, of jacket potatoes cooked in the embers in the ash-tray underneath. Drifts of smoke on the Cornish winter air, filling the place with a scented sense of place, adding to the atmosphere that is the day for choosing a Christmas Tree.
An old tractor, some hay bales and a serious carpet of pine needles add to the pungent smell creating an atmosphere second to none, of a working farm, of a family making a living, of the joy of Christmas. Sacks of potatoes stacked on a pallet, brown knobbly bags stuffed full of the winter staple, like Santa’s sack, piled high and sold to accompany the trees, almost as though farmland bed-mates should not be split up. Tasty, smooth skinned fist sized browny-white potatoes, a feast for a king, destined for many a Christmas table.
The farmer, an bashful old-boy in a loose brown coat, thick sweater and heavy boots, smiles beatifically at the children and parents clamouring to choose their favourite tree. A couple of farm hands unload the trees from the tractor and trailer, fresh back from the fields, sawing off the scrappy lower branches and discarding them in a pile behind the shed. A younger man, short haircut and earing, wearing a parka-style khaki coat and warm boots excitedly assists in the fun, by grasping trees from the stacked-up leaning lines and parades them up and down the barn to the excited squeals of children and discerning looks of parents. Modelling the trees as though in some fashion-week cat walk, like this year’s Collection depended on the barn-style exposure, he twirls the trees and with a sweep of the hand demonstrates the benefit of each and every feature. The height, the width, the even branches, the cluster at the top for the fairy, or maybe the Christmas star? The quirky, the odd and the downright wrong of each and every tree, all falling on the critical gaze. Cheerful chatter, the merits and disfigurement of each tree discussed and rejected and gleeful decisions made.
The old farmer, dog by his side, smiles and nods at happy people, looking as though his heart would burst. Never was there so much joy in the face of one man. A bashful smile and a few Cornish lilting words, an eager nod and a clasping of hands, like a charismatic Pontif, overseeing his flock, paying homage to his followers. Not a hint of arrogance, or ownership, or authority, or greed, just a man captivated by the sheer pleasure of seeing children and mums and dads and grannies and granddads so happy.
His mission starts in early autumn, when one by one, families drift by his farm, to choose their tree. An invitation into the waiting barn to choose a wooden label, hole drilled in the top threaded with a length of baling twine. Marker pen given to the child, the name of the tree-owner and the date for collection marked for future reference. A short smiley noddy conversation with the old farmer, a wave of the hand in the general direction of the Christmas Tree plantations and an unaccompanied sploshy welly-walk down the muddy path leads the purveyors of this ultimate Christmas treat to their destination.
There they are, like row upon row of green soldiers standing to attention in the south facing sloping fields, standing as though in an adoption parade, all saying ‘choose me, choose ME’. Mud and straw underfoot, the task begins of walking, because one can, up and down the rows and rows of trees, hand dragging across the branches like dragging a stick on a railing. Why does it matter what it feels like? Senses are piqued, the smell and feel of the fields in the weak autumn-winter sun is comforting, the silence that surrounds the trees, the oxygen they give back to the World, one can almost hear them breathe.
Small children make the trees look bigger, adults walk among them, standing tall and looking down into the needly-crowns, imagining that fairy or the Christmas star. Like a prickly-piney maze, criss-crossing the Cornish landscape, a catch-crop to provide farm income, in between the daffodils sold in the lay-by in spring and the smooth potatoes in their brown paper sacks.
Choosing the tree is the hardest thing of all, and when done, the wooden tag is tied with pride. The tree has an owner and its new life has begun.
A crop it is, like wheat or barley or cabbage, growing trees for cutting and sale is the industry here, like growing cut flowers or spuds. For those who worry for the trees, who try to be green and sustainable by buying a tree in a pot, this is not their place. This place is for the person who loves the trees for what they are, who has loved the trees for the seven years they take to grow this big, for the smell and the experience of visiting the farm and the old farmer who was sent as a Christmas Tree Angel, put on this Earth for the sole purpose of making Christmas special for hundreds of children and families across his patch.
A tight and meaningful handshake, a gentle nod and a Christmas word, and the deal is done. Money changes hands, but gladly given. Tree netted and carried to the car, potatoes dumped heavily in the boot, straw and mud scraped from wellies and children pile back into the car. Cheery waves as the car departs up the muddy drive.
Darkness falls and the image of the old farmer, sweeping up the needles and clippings, preparing for the next day with his faithful dog at his side, walking across the silent Christmas tree filled yard back to his bungalow, to his elderly wife, who smiles and joins in the tales of Christmas Tree children and wooden label skulduggery (for this does happen to be sure), is peaceful in his armchair, imagining what good fortune he has to be the purveyor of such joy.