It's easily the manliest thing a real man can do to test his mettle at this festive time of the year.
I am talking about climbing off the couch, venturing outside, and battling the elements to obtain the most highly prized gift of all -- the family Christmas tree.
Every December my dad, my son and I, despite the very real threat of being stabbed in the eyeballs by razor-sharp needles and having our ear canals glued shut by pine sap, would bravely make our way to the local tree lot.
After haggling with the tree-lot guy, we would return home with a real tree that, in keeping with tradition, would keel over to one side like Lindsay Lohan at a fraternity keg party. It would have been easier to wrestle an octopus into a tree stand.
Of course, not everyone has the same traditions. I am thinking here of my late buddy Jon, who traditionally called me on the same day every year. "Two minutes and 36 seconds," he would gasp breathlessly to indicate he'd set a new land-speed record for setting up his artificial tree.
This year, however, I decided to start a brand-new holiday tradition. This year, with no regard for personal safety, I decided to go out into the country and, for the very first time, cut down a real Christmas tree. I came up with this plan moments after our city editor wandered down to my cubicle, looked me in the eye and said: "I want you to go out into the country and cut down a real Christmas tree."
There are seven "choose and cut" Christmas tree farms in Manitoba, and so on Friday, photographer Trevor Hagan and I set out for C.D. Trees, which is located roughly 11 kilometres south of Steinbach on Highway 12, to hunt down the perfect tree.
The first thing we encountered on our quest was Cliff Freund, the amiable owner of the tree farm and president of the Manitoba Christmas Tree Growers Association. Along with his wife Dorothy, Cliff has been growing Scotch pines, balsam firs, and white spruce for about 21 years.
There are between 10,000 and 15,000 trees in various stages of growth on Cliff's sprawling operation, and he sells roughly 1,000 trees -- half of which are cut down by buyers -- every December. It takes six to seven years before a tree is ready to sell.
You will be surprised to hear this, but Cliff says real trees are far more eco-friendly than the fake variety. For instance, he points out, real trees are renewable and recyclable, can grow on land where other crops can't survive, and produce oxygen; whereas fake trees are made from plastic and metal and end up in landfills, where they contribute to global warming as well as incredibly long-winded speeches by Al Gore.
Surprisingly, in this age of Twitter and Facebook, Cliff says real trees are more than holding their own against fake trees. "We've consistently seen an increase in business and the other farms have, too," he explained. "The reason we're selling more is because of the farm experience and the activities we have to offer."
According to U.S. figures, about 27 million real trees were sold last December, easily outpacing the 8.2 million fake trees sold.
"It's not just because we offer an alternative to fake trees," Cliff told us. "We offer an experience. It's the experience of coming out and cutting it down. We have sleigh rides on weekends and hot chocolate and firepits for roasting wieners and marshmallows. Some growers have cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and skating."
Unlike in the wild, where rogue trees can lurk in the darkness before leaping out and stabbing you in the eyeball, farmed trees are nicely manicured, tame, and grow in orderly rows.
It could not be safer, but Cliff still felt it would be a good idea to accompany me as I wandered around looking for the right tree to suit my festive needs. As we marched, keeping a wary eye out for stumps and gopher holes, Cliff made helpful professional remarks, such as: "Here's a nice tree." Or: "Here's another nice one."
"I'm looking for a nice fat tree," I advised Cliff, "the kind of bushy tree where a badger or a cougar could hide and -- SURPRISE! -- leap out at you on Christmas day."
Moments later, there it was, the pudgy pine of my dreams. What happened next was that Cliff ordered me to lie down in the snow and pull out all the tufts of dry grass "because it'll plug up the saw."
"Watch out the sharp branches don't poke you in the eye," he hollered down at me.
"OUCH!" I shrieked back at him as he held the tree's trunk. "You could have mentioned that earlier."
I'm pretty sure Cliff chuckled warmly. "Use one hand to shield your eyes," he advised before (this is true) sagely adding: "Now put the SHARP edge of the saw up against the trunk."
So that's what I did. It sounded like this: "Sawsawsaw... pant, gasp, wheeze... sawsawsaw... TIMBER!"
It is hard, using mere words, to tell you how proud and manly I felt after cutting down my first real Christmas tree, but I will try: I felt very manly and proud.
And I'm sure you will, too. If I can do it without losing a limb, then it'll be fun for the entire family. Trust me, you'll have a great time. And, best of all, you'll make Al Gore proud.
How to track down a tree farm
There are seven "choose and cut" farms in Manitoba where you and the kids can go whack down a tree, then enjoy hot cider and a sleigh ride:
1) R &C Tree Co. near Netley: five kilometres north of Petersfield between Highways 8 and 9 on Taylor Road (91N). Phone: (204) 738-4350.
2) Country Pines near Tyndall: one kilometre west of Tyndall off Highway 44 Service Road. Phone: (204) 268-1557.
3) First Street Trees, Beasejour: six kilometres south of Park Ave., Beausejour, on First Street. Phone: 268-1372.
4) Windrift Tree Farm, Beausejour: five kilometres east of Tyndall on Highway 44 and 5.5 kilometres north. Watch for signs. Phone: 771-1921.
5) Hemminger's Trees & Wreaths near Lac du Bonnet/Pinawa: You'll find complete directions and a map at www.realchristmastrees.mb.ca. Phone: 268-5024.
6) C.D. Trees: 11 kilometres south of Steinbach on Highway 12 and 1.6 kilometres east on Road 29N. Phone: 326-6222.
7) Timber Trails Tree Farm: 12.5 kilometres south of Steinbach on Highway 12, then two kilometres east. Phone 434-9812.
You'll find more information, including a map and detailed directions, at www.realchristmastrees.mb.ca
Fun and festive tree facts
-- Up to 40 million real Christmas trees are sold in North America in any given year, with five to six million grown in Canada;
-- The seven members of the Manitoba Christmas Tree Growers Association sell about 19,000 trees every Christmas, with up to half cut down by the buyers;
-- In Manitoba, about five to 10 per cent of the trees sold are grown in the province, with most of the rest coming from eastern provinces;
-- A one-acre (0.4-hectare) Christmas tree plantation can remove up to 13,000 kilograms of airborne pollutants per year;
-- About 8.2 million artificial trees were sold in the U.S. in 2010;
-- The average growing time for a real tree is six to seven years.
Source: Manitoba Christmas Tree Growers Association and National Christmas Tree Association
A few tips on picking, cutting a tree
1) You need a tree that fits your space, so measure the height and width of where you'll put it before heading to the tree farm;
2) Most trees on farms are trimmed to an 80 per cent taper, so a 10-foot tree will be eight feet wide;
3) Look for a full tree, but remember the type of decorations you have. If you have tiny ornaments, a huge tree may not be right for you;
4) A farm operator can tell you what type of tree will suit your needs. For instance, some species are better at holding heavy ornaments;
5) Watch out for stumps, gopher holes, or mole mounds and uneven ground as you search for a tree;
6) Most farms supply saws. They are sharp;
7) As if you didn't know, dress for the weather;
8) Check the trunk before you cut to make sure it is sufficiently straight. Pines generally have some crook in their trunks;
9) Cutting the tree is a two-person job: One person lies in the snow and works the saw; while the helper tugs on the tree lightly to ensure the cut stays open and doesn't trap the saw;
10) Is it a Scots pine or a Scotch pine? "I'm not sure," says Cliff Freund, president of the Manitoba Christmas Tree Growers Association. "At the association, there's a debate on it at every meeting, so you can choose."
Source: Manitoba Christmas Tree Growers Association