By Eliza Courtney
First published on 2017, Latest Issue, November 30

As a child in rural southwestern Ontario, when we began to feel festive, my mother and I would bust out the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton “Once Upon a Christmas” album on vinyl and spend the day together baking Christmas cookies, decorating our home and adorning our Christmas tree with an assortment of lights and ornaments.  It never really seemed odd to me that this tree came in pieces of metal and plastic, from a box, which would sit in the dusty crawl space for most of the year.

Later, I began to question this tradition, among many in our society, and I have come to the conclusion that my fake plastic tree growing up was the Chef Boyardee of Christmas trees.  It just doesn’t seem very appetizing next to the real thing!!!

Before my first Christmas season in Nova Scotia four years ago, at age 29, I had never had a real, live Christmas tree, nor had I ever even heard of Christmas tree farming.  Being exposed to this for the first time was quite magical!  That may sound really cheesy, especially if you are from this area, and quite used to an abundance of balsam firs.  But, I am one of those people who had become jaded by Christmas and I used to get extremely agitated by being unwillingly exposed to advertising for cheaply made items that end up in a landfill.  I would find myself replaying images of the worst environmental degradation I have ever seen in my life, dead black rivers that ooze with piles of garbage and smell right foul, and I suppose I just started blaming Christmas because I wanted to blame someone, or something for what I found to be quite horrifying.

I still get angry about such things, but I don’t blame the holiday anymore.  No one is forcing me to buy a new Keurig machine.  We are so fortunate to live in a place that is almost always bustling with community events that support individuals as well as local charities, services and businesses.  The message behind these events is clearly that of service and serving others and I have noticed that throughout advent, or the time leading up to Christmas in particular, that there are so many more invitations to reflect and to explore faith, whether or not you adhere to specific spiritual beliefs, and to gather together to celebrate one another and to share ideas, art, music, sport and perhaps my favourite; delicious home cooked food and baked goods!

For me, opening my heart to Christmas again began with going to a Christmas tree farm with my L’Arche family, choosing our real tree, cutting it down, setting it up at home and then decorating it together.  Everyone was so eager and full of excitement and joy throughout the entire process.  Is this a “sappy” story, or what? Get it?  Sappy… ’cause balsam firs are full of sap.

Being that I am a bit of a traveler, who is interested in unique experiences and physical labour, I wanted to try out Christmas tree farming this year.  On my first day of work, I just showed up, having no idea what to expect.  The days turned into a routine of tramping around on boggy terrain, dragging around freshly cut balsam firs to one of the nearest roads through lots of hundreds of trees.  During those three weeks, we experienced temperatures ranging from -6 to 15 degrees centigrade.  Each morning before I got out of bed, I would check the weather forecast.  Will it be sunny, cloudy, rainy, or snowy?  Yes, to all of the above, and even some rainbows!  

Although this job requires a certain amount of physical strength and stamina, each time the chainsaw ran out of gas, we would have a bit of a break from “snagging” the trees to grab a snack or shoot the breeze.  We would spend the rest of the time bailing the cut trees, by feeding them through the baler, a machine specifically designed for this purpose, and then loading and unloading them onto wagons and trucks.

My stint as Christmas tree farm labourer was short-lived, but it has definitely made me into a supporter of this industry, which produces meaningful seasonal work for many.  I was most struck by the deep sense of camaraderie among the labourers and farmers whose families have been doing this work for generations.  These guys are all friends!  This is a community!  I noticed individual farmers sharing workers, equipment and resources with one another because everyone just wants to get the work done, and it never seemed competitive. I felt good in knowing that I was supporting a local economy whose trees would be bringing joy to people throughout the holiday season and that most municipalities have a system for Christmas tree removal to ensure that they go back to the earth come January.


Personally, I appreciated having had the opportunity to test my own physical limits and the limits I place upon myself or allow others to place upon me based on my gender.  Being cold and wet outside sucks, but it’s also quite funny when you find yourself putting a dry sock over your foot, then a plastic bag, and then another sock over the plastic bag before returning your foot to the inside of a wet boot.  I actually did laugh out loud at the absurdity of the situation as I did this.  (I went out and bought properly insulated rubber boots that evening).  This scenario also made me think about how feeling uncomfortable is usually not permanent and that my own human condition is temporary, which I actually found motivating to keep working.  Overall, moving trees around outside in the fresh air all day left me feeling a sense of accomplishment.

I want to acknowledge that everyone at the Northeastern Christmas Tree Association in Guysborough County works extremely hard: from the labourers who physically handle the trees, spending hours grading, tallying, loading and unloading trucks of thousands of trees, to the folks responsible for the organization and paperwork that needs to be completed behind the scenes. I observed that everyone there works very long hours, and even in the wettest conditions, I consistently encountered a “we’re in this together” attitude from all involved.  For someone who is completely new to all of this, I wanted to express my respect to everyone I met.  Thank you for your kindness, and know that what you do is awe-inspiring!


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