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Family Trees
Some Christmas hunting trips have nothing to do with the mall.

Illustration by Jeff Szuc

Hidden in the election excitement this fall was news of a hotly contested race that Wisconsin lost: Last month, North Carolina presented the White House its official Christmas tree.

Last year, however, Tom and Sue Schroeder of Neenah, Wis., did the honors, having won the National Christmas Tree Association’s National Tree Contest. This “grand champion” status earned them the chance to provide the official White House Christmas tree, and it marked the seventh time since 1966 that a Wisconsin farm had won. That leaves our state tied with Washington for second-most White House trees, while North Carolina has a sizable lead with 12.

But North Carolina can put trees into all the houses, white or otherwise, that it wants. This year, I’m putting a Wisconsin tree in mine.

It wasn’t always this way. Before we moved to Milwaukee, we lived in Washington, D.C., and bought our trees in a parking lot, under the cheery red glare of a CVS Pharmacy sign. Before that, Los Angeles, where I grew up, and where the freshest trees each “winter” could be found down at the iron-hot, dusty railyards. We’d drive up alongside boxcars that had just rolled in from Oregon or Washington. Massive doors would clatter open, and someone would start throwing trees onto the ground. It seemed equally possible that on other days, unicorns or moon wedges might tumble out.

Nothing seemed so impossible beside those trains in the blaring L.A. heat as those trees piling up by the track, smelling exactly the way they were supposed to, exactly the way they smelled when they were first cut, and nothing like the wood timbers beneath the tracks, logged years earlier, and now only smelling of creosote, burnt.

So pardon me as I weave past the trees for sale here in the city – sprouting on vacant lots, church lawns and, of course, in the rosy red shadow of a pharmacy or two. I’m headed north.

Not far, and not a chance I’m telling you where. No offense, but I don’t want you grabbing our tree. And there really is only one perfect tree each year, which is why we always start out early, the first weekend after Thanksgiving. And we always head to our favorite farm, in part because it’s picture-book accurate: The barn is old and red, and the way to the trees winds uphill, which is a good thing, because a tree hunt that doesn’t involve expending some effort isn’t a tree hunt at all. It’s why the trees by the parking lot go uncut. You don’t bundle everyone up and drive all this way to cut a tree growing 10 yards from where you left the car.

And you do bundle everyone. I’ve never seen anyone at this tree farm (or any other) march into the trees alone. This is a group activity, and everyone gets a say. Timber aesthetics are tricky. The tree can’t be too perfect; it has to have an ennobling flaw – a hole that must be turned to the wall, a brown branch or yellowed top that will need lopping off.

This may be extra work, but it’s essential. If you wanted a perfect tree, every needle in place, you could have gone to a discount store and bought an artificial one, whose limbs, no matter how delicate, can’t help but remind you of a toilet brush. As it should – one of the first companies to produce a fake Christmas tree was an outfit that normally made toilet bowl brushes.

Tom Schroeder is not in the brush business. In addition to winning the National Christmas Tree competition, he and his wife have been Wisconsin grand champions four times and reserve champs twice. Although he’s not bitter about Wisconsin’s recent loss to North Carolina – “They grow some very nice trees down there,” he says – Schroeder nevertheless insists that “we can put ours up against anybody’s.”

I ask if it’s just a friendly competition. “I don’t know how friendly it is,” he says. He adds that he’s kidding, and I believe him. Mostly.

But I definitely believe him when his voice goes dreamy about his own crop this year – “I’m amazed at the color and how they look” – and when he says he’s looking forward to putting up his own tree. He’s so busy in December, however, he doesn’t get around to it until two weeks before Christmas. But then he leaves his tree up a good long time, because “once Christmas comes, the gears shift down, and we enjoy what we produced.”

Sounds like a win to me.

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