Sunday Drives. Destination: The Russell Christmas Tree Farm
These past five years of living in Vermont our family has learned‚ sometimes the hard way, the key to enjoying winter: Prepare for it. Gamely. With your whole heart. Because winter will be long and you might as well make the most of it. We size up the winter boots for the kids, order and stack wood for the stove, pull out all the woolen items and place them in the foreground of our closets and mudroom drawers, and so on and so forth. By the time my winter list is complete, the kids are drafting their own Christmas lists in crayon for Santa. I remind them of the guidelines, “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.”—a helpful maxim to temper their expectations.
Christmas preparations are easy to love. Our kitchen island, which typically I like to keep clear, is cluttered with tapered candles, pomanders in the making, bowls of cranberries and stale popcorn draped with half-strung garlands waiting for a set of hands to pick up the work. By December first, we are a well-oiled, hygge-inducing Christmas machine, with the first piece of chocolate from the advent calendar to prove it.
There’s one tradition where we’ve let convenience override quaintness: the yearly getting-of-the-tree. Typically we stop off at Pete’s to select a pre-cut blue spruce or Douglas fir. Pete runs a rugged operation off of the highway, just three miles from our house, with spray-painted signs on plywood, and an old custard-colored VW bus that’s partly submerged into the ground decked with a plastic Santa and two reindeer. The kids look forward to selecting their free ornament from the heated shack and Pete’s always nice, always outwardly thankful for our business and ties the tree up onto our car as a courtesy. As with many traditions, it’s comforting if only because it’s familiar. Pete’s is a quirky place we’ve come to appreciate.
This year, I wanted the full Vermonty—a proper tree cutting, fit for the subject of a Rockwell painting. It wouldn’t require much effort. We’d just have to don snow gear and drive a few extra miles. When I told the kids we were breaking with our tradition, they were outwardly upset. ”But what about our free ornament?” they wondered. I further painted the picture of a horse-drawn sleigh taking us up and into the woods where we’d find our tree, cut it down all by ourselves, and then warm up in a cabin, sipping hot cocoa and nibbling on Christmas cookies. Felling our own tree was a distressing prospect for my son, but to both children, the promise of cocoa and cookies was enough to seal the deal.
Starksboro is not a far drive from our house but of slightly higher elevation. When we arrived at Russell Farm, the landscape was snowy and settled under a deep and quiet cover.
We arrived at 10 a.m. just as the farm opened. Local families in their multigenerational clusters were waiting on line. We met friends there and our group of seven people, invigorated by the brisk air, were now giddy waiting in anticipation. Minutes later our chariot made its way around a silo pulled by two draft horses, one salt and pepper, the other a black Clydesdale—both beautiful. We hopped in and onto the hay-bale seats, the adults bookending the kids, acting as a buffer from the open sides. The horses took off, trotting up the hill with impressive speed. It was a bracing and bumpy ride up into the woods. I can’t remember having so much fun.
After gliding along with the farm dogs running beside us, we arrived at a sloping swath of young evergreens meant for our perusing. In the near distance were a frozen pond and a wood cabin with a puffing chimney.
Dylan and I began to consider our options, standing knee-deep in snow we assessed how tall one of these trees would stand in our living room. We debated our selection, and the kids gave their final approval. Dylan had forgotten to bring a pair of gloves and yet insisted on cutting the tree, which he seemed to enjoy despite his hands turning raw red in no time. When we finally dragged our hard-earned evergreen to the side of the trail, the staff stacked it neatly onto a bed with other trees and hauled it off by tractor.
The whole time the kids had been playing, flopping their bodies in the mounds of fluff, throwing snowballs, lying on their backs and swishing snow angels. Belly laughs gave way to complaints about snow down the backs of their shirts and in their boots. We stomped down the hill towards the cabin for a moment of rest. Inside the dimly lit room, the kids set their wet gloves near the wood stove, and busied themselves with cookie decorating and sipping cocoa. After warming up we freed our seats for the next round of families coming in through the door.
Opting to walk back down to the barn, we found our Christmas tree ready and waiting. We paid (good old-fashioned cash or check only), strapped the tree onto our car, and thanked our friends for suggesting we come to Russell Farm in the first place. Back we drove through Starksboro, around the foothills, through the hollow, and into our stretch of the valley.
Our Tannenbaum stands proudly in our living room. She’s a beaut, decorated with the ornaments we’ve collected over the years—four of them free. I suspect that we will alternate between Russell Farm and Pete's year to year. Both have a certain charm. And as different as the two may be, they’re both as Vermont as they come.