Every year around this time, Joe McKay gets ready for a familiar holiday ritual - getting the family Christmas tree.
For Mr. McKay, though, the trip involves more than heading to a roadside stand and strapping the tree on top of his car. Ever since he first began the tradition with his children more than half a century ago, McKay has been bundling up, preparing a sled, and heading into the forest with a Swede saw to fell his own evergreen.
It's a practice that still thrives in many rural corners of America. This year, tens of thousands of wild-tree adherents in the Rockies alone are slogging through deep snows searching for the ideal Christmas totem - not so much for the Bunyonesque experience as for the sense of family unity the expedition provides.
Hand saws slung over their backs and young kids in tow on sleds, parents and college students home for the holidays are using tree-gathering as a way to find a deeper meaning of togetherness.
"Nowadays - and it's something we see a lot in the cities - young kids are getting away from the spiritual part of Christmas," says McKay, a retired electrician and devout Roman Catholic. "I'm not just talking about remembering the birth of Christ. I mean the fellowship of families spending quality time together."
The Gallatin National Forest, near Bozeman, sells more Christmas-tree cutting permits - more than 4,000 annually - than any other national forest in Montana, reflecting easy access to public lands here, a physically fit local population, and a self-reliant ethic.
"The trend in numbers has been stable, if not upward," says Tim Hancock, a timber staff officer with the forest.
By all indications, 2000 is proving to be a bullish Christmas tree season. Retail sales across the country have been brisk, with 36 million trees expected to be sold by the end of the year, according to the St. Louis-based National Christmas Tree Association.
One million more trees will be purchased this season than last. In perhaps a true signal of the modern age, 300,000 consumers will buy their green treasure either over the Internet or by mail order.
Lower price, more personality
Commercial growers attribute public demand for natural, plantation-grown trees to the recent strong economy, but some folks are opting for wild trees because they're cheaper and have more personality.
For the cost of a $5 Forest Service permit and a little sweat, thrifty buyers can harvest their own tree, rather than spending between $30 and $200 for manicured trees, often priced as high as $10 a foot.
For years, debates have raged over the appropriate role of logging in national forests, but there is little controversy associated with the cultural tradition of felling one's own Christmas tree.
Mr. Hancock says having the public harvest 10- to 15-year-old lodgepole pines and Douglas firs helps thin crowded forests, allowing the remaining trees to grow taller. And after the Christmas season ends, trees in many states are recycled and used for wood chips or placed in streams and ponds to anchor eroding shorelines and improve habitat for fish.
Wild trees are not "perfect," when compared with the hybridized, manicured symmetry of Tannenbaums sold commercially. But they do command their own radiance and charm, Hancock says. "My daughter refuses to have one of those manicured ones in the house," he notes. "She likes wild trees best, and the experience of picking one out as a family."
Historians trace the custom of evergreens at Christmastime to 16th-century Europe, in particular the region around Strasbourg, France, where families hung paper items, sweets, and fruits on trees in celebration.
German settlers brought the tradition to America. Its popularity grew after Franklin Pierce, the 14th US president, displayed a tree in the White House. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the annual lighting ceremony on the White House lawn.
An immortal symbol
"To many ancient cultures, evergreens came to symbolize immortality, because they did not 'die' when winter came as did many other trees and plants," the Christmas Tree Association says. "To celebrate this triumph of life over death, people brought the evergreens into their homes."
Religious leaders say its easy to make a segue between the trees and the Christian notion of eternal life.
Outfitted in snow boots, pastor Darren Paulson, from Bozeman's Hope Lutheran Church, led parishioners on a tree-cutting trek last weekend into the nearby Rocky Mountain foothills.
The excursion accomplished precisely what the Rev. Paulson had intended: to have his congregation reflect on the meaning of Christmas in an environment removed from the pervasive commercial aspects of the holiday.
"Getting the tree itself was secondary," he says. "It was an occasion for getting members of our church together."
McKay laments that many ex-urban newcomers to the interior West do not have a tradition of cutting their own trees and have no idea how to begin.
"Maybe if someone would help get them started, they might look upon Christmas in a different way," he says. "That wouldn't be a bad thing."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society