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Tree Hunting
Part Of Festive Family Holiday Tradition
Sam Minturn demonstrates how to cut down a tree at Hilmar Forest on Friday. This week is expected to be the busiest one of the season for Hilmar Forest and other area Christmas tree lots, including Nancys Christmas trees outside Escalon. - photo by ANDREA GOODWIN/THE LEADER

The holiday tradition of bringing a live tree into the home and decorating it as part of the Christmas celebration is relatively new. Only in the last 200 years have private homes had Christmas trees, but the tradition took firm hold in Christian communities and the Christmas tree became symbolic of the holiday.

Local tree farms and Christmas tree lots do the majority of their business during the first and second weekends in December. This week will also likely include some of the busiest days of the year for Christmas tree farms and lots. Sam and Janet Minturn, owners of Hilmar Forest, said that they open for business the day after Thanksgiving, but they have had customers even earlier than Turkey Day.

“The season really looks like a bell curve. We’re slow right after Thanksgiving, but last weekend and this weekend are really busy. Then it gets slow again right before Christmas,” Sam Minturn said.

The iconic Christmas tree is an evergreen, but trees come in a huge variety of types. Nancy Peterson, owner of Nancy’s Christmas Trees on Temple Creek Road outside of Escalon, said that she is a noble fir gal herself. Unfortunately, noble firs do not grow well in this area.

“God didn’t build a forest in the flatlands, so I get them fresh-cut from Oregon,” Peterson said.

Shipping trees from Oregon is common for California Christmas tree lots. Hilmar Forest grows several varieties of Christmas trees, but also sells cut trees from Oregon. Monterey pines, incense cedars, leyland cypress and other varieties will do well in the valley. Noble firs do not, although this variety is sought after in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. Nancy’s lot contracts with a grower in Oregon and she gets fresh shipments of trees. But she said that the biggest mistake people make is to take a fresh live tree in a warm house without taking proper care of it.

“People try to put live trees in their house too early. The trees die,” she explained.

Peterson and Minturn both agreed that making a fresh cut to the base of a tree before putting it in a watering stand is important. Minturn said that the sap will actually seal the tree if the cut is out of water for more than 30 minutes or so, and the tree will die more quickly.

“Always make a fresh cut, and keep the water line above the base of the tree,” Minturn said.

Another alternative to buying a cut tree is the cut-your-own experience. The Minturns planted their first trees at Hilmar Forest in 1970, and were selling trees by ’73. Christmas trees can take anywhere from four to 15 years to reach a height of four feet, although the average is around six years. Minturn planted Nordmann firs, which take between 15 and 20 years to reach a height considered acceptable for Christmas trees. He joked that he planted those for his grandkids to cut down. Minturn said that one common misconception is that people who chop down their own Christmas tree are causing deforestation. He said that when one tree is cut down at a Christmas tree farm another is planted in its place.

“These trees are a renewable crop just like corn or any other food crop. They just take a little longer,” Minturn said.

People will also travel to find just the right tree for the holiday. Joann and Robert Rhein were shopping for a tree at Hilmar Forest on Friday evening. Joann said that it is a family tradition to cut their own tree at Hilmar Forest, and they come from Los Banos each year to get a tree.

“We also want to keep the money local,” Robert added.

Live Christmas trees from a cut-your-own farm are the ultimate form of shopping local. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 85 percent of artificial trees are made in China. Almost every pre-cut live tree sold in California was grown either in California or Oregon, although some do come from other states or Canada.