Inserting Tree Limbs, and other Christmas Tree Memories

  • The author's daughter, Coyne Hopey, is pictured with the family's 2013 tree pick. Photo: Courtesy Don Hopey

December 20, 2013
Originally published December 22, 2013

As environment reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Don Hopey's work is usually found on the front page. We invited him to let us in on his family's Christmas tree traditions.

I remember, as a child, driving with my father and four younger brothers, sometimes my mom, from one Christmas tree lot to another, searching for just the right tree. 

It was nothing to hit a half-dozen of the seasonal sites in McKees Rocks, Stowe, Crafton and Carnegie to look for a tree. The ritual was always the same: We’d walk past the rusty burn barrels where sweet, sappy pine boughs were blazing and the tree lot guys huddled. One of us would find a likely looking tree and my father would straighten it from where it was leaning against other trees and then hand it off to one or more of us boys so he could step back and walk around it.  If it passed that initial inspection,  one of us would be left behind as a guard while he and the rest of the entourage continued the quest for perfection--or his idea of it. This could go on for hours, even days. Our one solace during these lengthy tree shopping excursions is that none of us could ever remember not having a tree for Christmas.

Despite the care he put into selecting the tree, gaps in the branches appeared when we got it home that, for some reason, couldn’t be camouflaged by turning them toward the living room wall. So my father would get out his electric drill and a big drill bit and  begin boring holes into the trunk of the tree and inserting branches, whittled to size, into those holes to fill the gaps.

As my own children have grown up, we have followed a different holiday tradition. We go to the country to cut a live tree for Christmas. 

Of course, each of us sees the perfect Christmas tree a little differently: some like a fat bushy tree, more global than conical, others like them taller but full-figured. And there’s always a vote for something so skinny only Charlie Brown would wrap his arms around it.

A while back, in an effort to restore peace in the countryside and end the annual public field battle over what tree to select, we decided to give each person a turn. Now we fight over who selected last year’s tree and who is next in line to select a tree this year. Democracy was never so messy as it is in the car rides to cut a tree.

Messy, but memorable.

There was the hot year my daughter, while trudging up a steep hill on a Christmas tree farm outside Houston in Washington County, found and picked up a slow moving, foot-long, garter snake sunning itself on the west-facing slope.

There was the year we went  to cut a tree so early in December that it wasn't open yet but allowed us to cut one anyway. After we found one we liked and cut it, we went to the farmhouse to pay, and were greeted with a batch of fresh-baked cookies. 

There was the year we cut our tree at a farm near Lone Pine in Washington County, stopped at the Springhouse in Eighty-Four for lunch and wound up getting a dog at the Animal Friends shelter next door.

And there was the year it was so windy we almost lost the tree on on the way home on I-79, or maybe because someone didn’t tie it to the roof well enough.

There was the year it was so cold and snowy that we wrapped the kids in coats and blankets and pulled them on sleds to a distant grove of blue spruce we hadn’t visited before.  They had fun sledding while I moved through the stand, putting a hat on one tree, a scarf on another, gradually disrobing to mark candidates for a final selection, until I was shivering.

And there was the year we cut a tree growing on a hillside and then couldn’t get its crooked trunk to stand straight in the tree stand. 

May your holidays be merry and bright. And may you enjoy the voices raised in family debates big and small and revel in nature’s perfect  imperfections.

And forget about getting out the drill. You don’t really need it.