KENNEDY - An indomitable symbol of the holiday season is the Christmas tree.
Each year, families must find the tree that fits their house perfectly. And for many in the area, the place they do so is Abers Acres in Kennedy.
More than just strawberry fields, Abers Acres is a year-round farm that offers a wide array of fresh-picked and pick-your-own items to customers on a daily basis. During the winter season, fir and spruce trees that dot the landscape of the Abers Acres fields are sawed to the ground one a time and eventually make their way into local homes to add to the Christmas spirit.
I'd worked with John and Sue Abers of the farm on numerous stories in the past year, on topics ranging from organic farming to the history of their home. So when the time came to come up with a Christmas feature for the Dave Does... feature, I knew exactly whom to call.
John and Sue invited me to visit their Christmas tree operation on a recent Friday evening to see how the business operates and to get an inside look at how trees go from field to lot to families' Christmas morning.
FINDING THE PERFECT TREE
Christmas trees fill the lot at Abers Acres on Route 394 in Kennedy during the holiday season. I visited the tree farm recently in an attempt to discover my own holiday spirit while seeing what goes into the process of providing real, fresh Christmas trees to area families.
P-J photos by Aimee Frederick
Aimee and I arrived at the Aberses' front door on a crisp evening - Aimee much more dressed for the occasion than I.
Being the true office body I am, I exited the car and tramped through the snow in little more than a fleece and the khaki pants I'd worn to work that day. Granted, I was wearing child-sized boots purchased the previous winter, a winter cap with The Post-Journal emblazoned upon it (for branding purposes), and a jacket still carrying the scars from last year's too-close visit to the bonfire at Punxsutawney, but those wouldn't keep me too warm once we hit the Christmas tree mines.
Preparation, not my strong suit. But at least there would be time to sit down with Sue and find out what to do in the lot before cars starting pulling in and people started asking me questions.
Not so much. Just after we entered the front door and Sue greeted us, a family of customers pulled into the driveway and hopped out of their car, excited to find their 2010 tree. Sue pushed me out into the lot to greet them, and before I knew a fir tree from a hole in the ground, I was helping the Smith family of Cherry Creek with one of its most important holiday decisions.
As I wandered around the lot with Matt, Marsha and their children, Loren and Louisa, I listened as they debated the merits of different varieties of tree. Some are better for hanging ornaments, it would appear. Others are better at maintaining their needles for longer. And, of course, a major concern of every family is what best fits in their living space.
Without any actual knowledge of the trees I was looking at with the family, I attempted to engage the Smith children in conversation about which Christmas trees they liked most and why. They weren't interested in speaking with me, which was understandable. At that young age, I wouldn't want to talk to the strange and confused-looking man in the Christmas tree lot either.
I guess I never really paid attention to where the Christmas tree in my house came from as I was growing up. All I knew and cared about is that there were presents under it on Christmas morning. And now, as an adult, our tree is a plastic one that comes out of a bag and gets reassembled each year. This entire process was new and bewildering to me, so I didn't have much to add to Smiths' experience.
Aimee, meanwhile, in between snapping photos, seemed well in her element. She chatted it up with the family, pointing out which trees give ''more room for imagination'' when hanging ornaments and which trees look and smell prettier and more Christmasy and whatever. It made me think this might have been a better assignment for Aimee Does..., but I hung in there.
The Smiths eventually, with no thanks to me, found a tree they deemed suitable. The patriarch and I worked together to carry the tree off the lot and load it into the back of his truck, we wished the family a Merry Christmas, and away they went.
And I had felt completely inadequate - useless, really - throughout the entire process.
The only way I was going to get any better at this, I thought, was to get a hands-on experience from the very beginning. Sue let me borrow a pair of snow pants, John loaded Aimee and I up into a trailer hitched to his tractor, and we headed off to do some true Christmas tree farming.
VISITING THE CHRISTMAS FOREST
After we took the short ride across Route 394 and up a snowy path, John shut the tractor down and we hopped out to explore where Christmas trees are born.
Row after row of snow-covered trees greeted us as we entered the wintry wonderland. John and I trudged through thigh-deep snow, I with a shovel in hand and he with a chainsaw, as we searched for an appropriate tree to sacrifice for the sake of the lot.
John told us that the trees in the field we were walking through had been growing for nine years and were ripe for the harvest. He found one that he felt comfortable cutting down and we started digging out its trunk.
The chainsaw stayed out of my hands the entire time, which was a wise decision on John's behalf. He let me do some work with the shovel, but any tool that could potentially lop off a limb is better left to a professional, especially in slippery conditions.
John got right down on the ground with that weapon, though, and felled the tree in mere seconds. We shared the task of shaking the snow away and lugging the tree back to the trailer, where we lifted it up and readied it for its trip to the lot and eventual sale.
As we returned to the field to repeat the process, John shared tales with me about his experiences as a young man, going into the woods with his family and seeking out the perfect Christmas tree. Once it was found, they would cut it down and drag it back home - a holiday bonding experience unlike many others.
Later in the evening, back in the warmth of the house, Sue told us that she and her family had similar adventures each Christmas season on the same hills.
''When they'd get really tall, you'd climb the tree and take the top out of it - you just wanted the experience of cutting down the tree,'' she told us, reminiscing. ''Usually we'd take a sled or toboggan or something with us, and we'd put that tree on that thing - it was probably about half a mile from the hill to Drybrook Road (where she grew up). It would be a whole-day thing.''
Not having such experiences in my youth, that didn't sound like a great deal of fun to me. I did have a good time out with John in the field, helping to cut down just a few trees and carry them just a couple hundred feet or so, but it was nothing like the experiences he and Sue talked about from their youths.
Sue told us that a good number of families each year still choose the ''cut-your-own'' option of Christmas tree selection, if just to share the experience with their children.
''I will have people who will come and, even though the fields are way down there or way up there, they want to park in my driveway and lug that tree, even though they could have parked real close to it,'' she told us. ''It's all part of the experience, dragging the tree back down the hill. They don't even care what the tree looks like, a lot of times when they cut their own, they just want to do it.''
I'm not going to lie - it doesn't sound like fun to me. But if you're into tradition, I guess you're into tradition.
I helped John cut down and load three trees onto the trailer before it got too dark. He told me that during a normal excursion, he and his son, Adam, might load up to a dozen trees of that size on there. But we had to get back. There was more to do.
A WREATH OF CONTRAST
Shortly after we arrived back at the lot, the Roth family of Falconer - Josh and Carrie, along with their children, Jackson and Jacob - showed up and wanted to purchase a tree. This time, I was a little more prepared.
Jackson and Jacob ran around and enjoyed the pure fun there is to be had in the lot, darting between trees and jumping into snowbanks, while I walked with Josh and Carrie and looked at the choices. I think I sounded slightly more knowledgeable as I attempted to tell them the difference between firs and spruces, and between different types of firs and spruces at that, but surely they could tell I was completely making it up as I was going along.
I hope they didn't let my jibber-jabber affect their tree choice.
After they selected a tree on their own accord and I helped Josh load it up in his truck, Sue took us inside and showed me yet another side of the business: wreath-making.
While waiting for customers to arrive at the lot, Sue spends time using scraps from trees - branches that have fallen off or are cut off during the harvesting process - to create festive wreaths that are sold as accessories. She had teased this process to me when we spoke on the phone earlier in the week to set up the visit, and I told her I was excited to do something in the arts-and-crafts realm.
I learned that arts-and-crafts is yet another genre in which I need to do a lot of self-improvement.
With speed and apparent ease, Sue clips up the branches and whips them together into beautiful wreaths. She told me that depending on the size of the finished product, she spends about a half-hour to 45 minutes on each wreath. So add patience to ''speed and apparent ease.''
In addition to making the process look pretty simple, Sue made it sound that way too. You clip the branches up, hold them in a bundle, use a spool of wire to attach that bundle to a ring, and repeat numerous times until the wreath is full, complete and beautiful. No problem.
Never underestimate the klutziness and awkwardness that is Dave.
Sue watched over me during my first few attempts at clipping, bundling and attaching, giving me pointers and setting me straight when I went astray. A customer soon arrived at the lot, however, and she left me on my own while she attended to outside business.
Everything went downhill from there.
Impatience, inexperience and inability set in simultaneously. My wreath quickly became a complete mess. Twigs shooting in every which direction. ''Ugly'' sides of needles showing where the smooth sides should be. Bald spots. Everything that could be wrong was wrong. It was the Murphy's Law of Christmas.
When Sue came back in and saw what I was doing, she used an interesting term to describe what I had done. She said my wreath had ''contrast.'' It was a nice way to say I was showing all there is to show in tree needles - the good, the bad and the ugly - in one terrible-looking package, basically.
After I finished the Charlie Brown Christmas tree equivalent of a wreath, Sue broke out her box of accouterments. I was certain that no amount of bows and berries would tidy up my disaster of a wreath, but she showed me a few tricks - patches here, tie-downs there - that actually tidied it up to some level of respectability.
I'd completed my first wreath. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, it was the first Christmas decoration I had ever created with my own hands, at least since elementary school art class. I took it home and it is presently - I'd say proudly, but that might be an overstatement - displayed on the front door of our Sinclairville home, greeting all passers-by with its ''contrast'' and ... well, with its contrast. That's it.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL
After I helped one more couple, Chelsea and Nick Walker of Falconer, pick out their tree for the year, we decided to call it a night.
You might say tackling a Christmas tree lot wasn't as challenging a task as my previous work studies. I'd say it was just as challenging, albeit in its own way.
It wasn't the same kind of step outside my comfort zone, but it was a big step nonetheless. Christmas festivities, and especially decorations, have never really been my scene.
Seeing the smiles on the faces of the children who visited the lot that evening I was there, though, and hearing the joy in John's and Sue's voices as they remembered their trips to get family trees as youngsters, in some way made me long for those special times as well.
And even though I thought my wreath turned out so crummy, my wife jumped for joy and told me she loved it when I pulled it out of the car and presented it to her that night. For a moment, I almost thought I'd accidentally brought home the one Sue had made.
I don't know when I became so cynical, or when exactly I lost that spirit that so many others revel in every holiday season. And I won't go so far as to say my heart grew three sizes during my few hours at the Christmas tree lot that day, but I will say that it gave me a new perspective on the Christmas season.
Merry Christmas to all of you out there under your trees, whether they be firs or spruces. And to the Smiths, Roths and Walkers - I hope I helped you pick the perfect ones.