When my husband proposed marriage on a crisp December evening seven years ago, I already knew that his parents approved of me. The proof? I had been hired on to the work crew at the family's Christmas tree farm just outside of North Gower, Ont., that season – and most of the people who work at the farm are family members. I was scheduled to show up for my first shift in the cashier's booth less than 12 hours after he proposed.
My family always had a real tree when I was growing up in an Ottawa suburb in the seventies, but we chose it from frozen rows of evergreens lining the parking lot of the local hardware store, so I wasn't sure what to expect at a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm. I discovered that many of the customers come from families that have lived in eastern Ontario for generations. But the really enthusiastic ones are the people who chat with me in the booth in halting English, pulling off their first-ever mittens (bought in anticipation of the cold winters in their new homeland) to hand over the cash for their trees.
The nostalgia at the farm might seem hokey to some: Christmas music plays over outdoor speakers set up in a clearing in the sugar bush next to the Christmas tree fields. Wreaths decorate the old sugar shack, where hot chocolate is on offer, and a bonfire warms frozen fingers after the tree cutting. But the pride on the face of a young boy who is finally strong enough to pull his family's tree down the path, and the pleasure of a young couple choosing a tree for their first apartment seem genuine to me.
My favourite moments at the tree farm come around 4:30 in the afternoon. The last few customers of the day drag their chosen trees past my booth as the long winter's night settles in around them. By five o'clock it's pitch-dark. The only sound is an occasional pop from the subsiding bonfire a few metres away. The teenage girls who dispense hot chocolate from the old sugar shack across the clearing have closed up shop, and blackness surrounds me.
Just before I pack up my cash register for the night, I hear the sound of bells approaching through the bush. Before long, two Clydesdales loom up out of the dark. A neighbour down the road brings his horses to the tree farm every weekend in December to give customers a hayride, and he touches the brim of his plaid woollen hat in a silent salute as he passes by on his way home. I close the door of the booth behind me and head out of the bush toward the lights of the family home.
Jennifer Thomas lives in Ottawa with her husband and two small members of the next generation of tree-farm workers.
Page 1 of 1
• How to explain to your kids who Santa really is
• How to have an imperfect Christmas
• Festive wintery cookie recipe and template