By Ariel Wish
In homes all around the world, “Christmas tree lights shine through the dark winter nights when we need them the most,” said Geoff Chandler who, along with his wife, Lindsay Chandler, owns and operates Northern Vermont Llama Co. and Christmas Tree Farm in Waterville.
Like the Chandlers, tree farmers all around the state have geared up to provide families with safe and fun holiday experiences and are dedicated to bringing some cheer into Vermont homes amid the trying times of COVID-19.
“It has been a tough year for everyone, and I think people are looking forward to still being able to do something that’s safe and fun outdoors,” said Patrick White of Meadow Ridge Farm in Middlesex, who reported that a number of customers contacted the farm in early November to inquire about their procedures this year and expressed their excitement for their upcoming visit. “Coming to cut a Christmas tree is an annual tradition for many families, and it’s nice to be able to help foster that, even in this crazy year,” he said.
Jane Murray, who recently moved back onto Murray Hill Farm in Waterbury to help her parents with the Christmas season, expressed similar sentiments: “We’re not sure yet how demand will compare with prior years, but we’ve heard reports from pumpkin patches and other seasonal farms that demand was high. A seasonal farm experience like ours is naturally a safe, outdoor activity,” she said.
All three farms are taking necessary precautions to ensure the health and safety of their customers, requiring masks in congested areas and indoors.
The Murrays officially opened their farm to the public the weekend before Thanksgiving — one to two weeks earlier than usual — attempting to spread out the heavier crowds that typically come a week or so after Thanksgiving. “In 2020, we should all be able to add a little extra joy to our lives — so if having your Christmas tree up before Thanksgiving gives you even a fraction of happiness, then you should be able to get one!” said Murray. They are encouraging visitors to bring their own thermos of hot cocoa or hot cider to keep warm outside, as opposed to having the free hot cocoa or cider that they typically pass out. They have made all their trees available on their online store, catering to customers who would like a contactless checkout.
Also looking to limit contact during checkout, the Chandlers are offering an option to pay using the porch window. While their store remains open, capacity is limited to 10 people at a time, ensuring enough space to socially distance.
Meadow Ridge Farm has purchased Plexiglas for the area where people pay, masks for employees, and sanitizer for saws and the credit card keypad. In addition, they have made signs to remind customers to please wear a mask and practice social distancing.
The good news for all is that, despite each farm’s slightly differing safety measures, the rows of evergreens are planted 6 feet apart or more in the field, allowing visitors to socially distance with ease as they search for the perfect seasonal centerpiece for their homes.
While ensuring visitors have a pleasant experience choosing their trees took a little more effort this year than most, tree farms in Vermont work tirelessly, year after year, to make sure their groves are as healthy as possible and offer the most suitable options. This starts with the types of trees that the farmers choose to plant, the most popular being balsam fir and Fraser fir.
“At Meadow Ridge, we grow almost all balsam fir (and Canaan fir, a type of balsam),” said White. “These are the trees with the distinct scent that everyone associates with Christmas. We do also have some Fraser fir. These are beautiful trees with a little bit of silvery color to the bottom of their needles, but they don’t have the same scent.”
Murray Hill Farm, on the other hand, plants almost exclusively Fraser firs: “We have thousands in our 15-acre tree fields. They are often called the ‘Cadillac of Christmas trees’ because they hold onto their needles well and can stay fresh and fragrant through the end of the year. The branches are also stronger than other firs and are often more spaced apart, which leaves lots of room for ornaments.”
Each farm offers a wide range of tree heights, catering to all their customers’ needs. “Most of our customers have eight-foot ceilings, and therefore are looking for a six- to seven-foot tree (the tree stand adds a few inches of height, and most want to leave room for a tree topper as well). People with double-height ceilings typically want a 12- to 16-foot tree to make a grand statement in their living room. We have plenty of every height,” explained White.
The origins of the Christmas tree date back to present-day Germany in the Middle Ages (sometimes referred to as the “Dark Ages”), when, in 1419, a guild in Freiburg put up a tree decorated with apples, tinsel, and gingerbread. On Christmas Eve, “Paradise Plays,” which celebrated the feast day of Adam and Eve, used a decorated evergreen to represent the tree of knowledge. By the 15th century, demand for these trees became so high that laws were passed to discourage people from cutting pine branches.
Now, 600 years later, Christmas trees are still a shining light in dark times. Thanks to our local Christmas tree farms, Vermont’s evergreens are bountiful and up for the taking.