By Karl H. Kazaks
For the Kannapolis Citizen
BOONE ó Once again the holiday season is near, and soon one of its most ubiquitous symbols will be among us ó the Christmas tree.
For many, getting a Christmas tree involves more than just buying one at the local lot ó it means traveling to the land where they grow ó the Boone/Blowing Rock area of northwestern North Carolina ó and cutting their own.
Many types of trees can work as a Christmas tree, but the ideal one for many is the Fraser fir because of its deep, vibrant color; its pure, pungent fragrance; its soft, densely packed needles; and its strong boughs, long lifespan, and fine overall form. Fraser firs have been voted the No. 1 Christmas tree in numerous polls.
Native to elevations above 5,000 feet in the southern Appalachians (northwestern North Carolina, southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee), the Fraser fir can be cultivated only at elevations above 3,000 feet.
Because the tree is so popular nationwide, and because it grows only in such a restricted area, northwestern North Carolina has become a major Christmas tree-producing region. North Carolina is the second largest Christmas tree-producing state by volume, and first by sales. Of the Christmas trees grown in the state, more than 90 percent are Fraser fir.
Most of the several million Fraser firs harvested each year in North Carolina are cut and shipped out. But many folks like to make their own trip to the mountains to cut down their own. Last year, tens of thousands of trees were sold at choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms in the Boone-Blowing Rock area.
As more people seek the experience of cutting down a Christmas tree themselves, the number of choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms has correspondingly increased, as have the number of activities offered at many farms. Today, visiting a choose-and-cut farm often involves amenities like hot chocolate and cider, hay rides, fires and petting zoos with animals such as sheep or llamas.
You’ll probably find more than just trees for sale, too, as farms have started offering wreaths with other local and seasonal crafts. All together, the experience is about more than just getting a tree ó it’s about the experience of enjoying the season with loved ones.
“Our typical guest spends two, three, four hours at the farm,” said one grower in the Boone area who has been in business for almost three decades. “It’s a family event, a family Christmas tree experience. We have families that have had three generations here ó children who used to come with their parents bringing their children. People come because they want a family experience and they come year after year.”
Mary Ryan of Wilson is getting ready to take her fifth annual Christmas-tree trip to the Boone-Blowing Rock area. For her, going to the mountains to cut down a tree has become a family tradition.
“We bring the whole family,” Ryan said. This year, that includes son Sean and his wife Shelly, and daughter Amy, her husband Stevie, and their daughter Riley, who is 3.
“We first heard about the idea of going out to cut down your own tree from my brother. The first year he came with us, and the second year, even though he had moved to Chicago, he came back with his family, because they liked the family gathering so much.”
Every year the Ryan family rents a cabin and spends the weekend in the High Country.
“It’s a good way to spend time with each other before the crazy holiday season,” Ryan said. “It’s wonderful just to be with each other. There’s no pressure to go anywhere do or anything.”
As part of their tradition, every year the Ryan family has a festival of game-playing in the evenings by the fire.
“Last year we started something new,” said Ryan. “Everyone brings their own game or makes up their own game, and brings a prize for the winner, and we all play the games. We have a good old time, do a lot of laughing. We have a lot of fun.”
Going to the Christmas tree farm and cutting down a tree is a focal part of the experience for the family, especially with young Riley.
“A couple years ago, we had her out on a sled,” Ryan said. “Last year there wasn’t any snow, but we had her all bundled up, walking through the trees. We took pictures, and when we look at them she remembers the fun we had. I think this year she’s really going to get excited.”
Ryan expects to continue making the annual family pilgrimage to the mountains for a tree.
“We hope to have snow,” she said, “and we’re hoping to have more grandkids and really make it a large family experience.”
For Helen Diehl of Marietta, Ga., the tradition of cutting her own Christmas tree began in 1999, when her daughter was a sophomore at Appalachian State University.
Since then, it’s evolved into a weekend holiday tradition for her and her husband and a group of their friends.
“The first year it was just our family,” Diehl said, “but when we came back and our friends saw our tree and we told them how much fun we’d had ó the hay ride and all the other stuff ó they asked, ‘Can we come too?’ Now we’ve got about five couples that come up every year. We’ve had to cut it off at that, because anymore would be too much.”Since the Diehls and their friends’ children are grown, the trip to the mountains is an adult occasion.
“It’s part of our holiday,” Diehl said. “We make it a big weekend, the first weekend of December. We all rent a house together. We go shopping, hiking, sightseeing, out to dinner.”
At night they’ll watch a movie, play games or go out dancing. “It depends on the mood for the night,” Diehl said.
For many years before starting their own Christmas tree-cutting tradition, the Diehls used an artificial tree.
“We thought we were conserving resources,” Diehl said, “but going out to the farm and seeing the trees grow made us realize trees are a renewable resource ó when you cut one down you plant another one. Also, getting our own tree, it lasts so much longer, because it’s a fresh cut.”
Even though Diehl cannot bring all her friends along, she does encourage them to go there themselves.
“Especially people with little kids,” she said. “We didn’t know when our kids were little or we certainly would have taken advantage of it. We’ve had so much fun.”
Those who take part in the joys of the choose-and-cut experience not only encourage a native industry (more than 80 percent of artificial trees are made in China), but also establish their own seasonal traditions. By connecting with their family and friends, as the Ryans and Diehls do every year, people are able to connect with the true meaning of the season.Karl Kazaks is a freelance writer living in the High Country.For more information about the Boone-Blowing Rock area and the High Country in general, see www.visitnchighcountry.com and www.boonechamber.com/guide.
By Karl H. Kazaks