Remember that National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation scene where Clark Griswold leads his family through knee-high snow to find the perfect Christmas tree? Son Russell, played by a young Johnny Galecki, whines, “Dad, didn’t they invent Christmas tree lots so people wouldn’t have to drag all the way out to nowhere and waste a whole Saturday?” To which Chevy Chase’s character retorts, “They invented them, Russ, because people forgot how to have a fun old-fashioned family Christmas, and they’re satisfied with scrawny, dead, overpriced trees that have no special meaning.”
By the time Clark spies his holy grail tree, daughter Audrey (an equally young Juliette Lewis) is an icicle. Clark is too enchanted by the magical conifer to notice. “There it is!” he whispers, eyes shining as beams of golden light shoot down from the heavens and the voices of angels ring out. The tree is three times his height; its needles sparkle like diamonds. It’s the one.
Silly as it sounds, that scene was playing on a loop in our brains as we drove to Wolcyn Tree Farms & Nursery in Cambridge, an hour north of the Twin Cities. Neither of us had been raised in homes that ever purchased real Christmas trees. Our parents said they were “too messy,” dropping needles everywhere and dribbling sap. It wasn’t until we moved to Minnesota—at age 37—that we considered buying our first real tree. We wanted the full Griswold experience: Trudging through a foot and a half of snow on a 15-degree December day, waiting for that epiphanic moment to strike, sounded like a grand way to spend a Saturday.
We chose Wolcyn Tree Farms because the Wolcyn family has been in business since 1968. At 1,200 acres, they’re one of the largest evergreen producers in the state, with wholesale distribution throughout the Midwest. They also operate tree lots in St. Paul and Northfield for folks who’d rather grab-and-go. Wolcyn moves an estimated 45,000 conifers per season, but its year-round supply includes fruit trees, shade trees, and shrubs. Some Wolcyn customers have been coming since childhood, making a day trip out of an outing that begins with a hayride to 80 acres of choose-and-cut fields and ends with free hot apple cider in the family barn.
As we meandered up and down the rows of hardy evergreens, bow saw in hand, eyeballs scanning left to right as if we were watching a tennis match, the Goldilocks-ing was real: Nope, that one’s too scraggly. This one’s too short. Too tall, too bald, too bushy, too brown. There were a lot of hard “no”s and even more “meh”s. Where were the ribbon-winning beauties we’d seen on display in the Ag-Hort Building at the Minnesota State Fair? Surely that “just right” tree existed somewhere—we just hadn’t seen it yet.
The first one to really catch our eye was frosty pale green, like the color of mint chocolate chip ice cream. From a distance, it looked Martha Stewart elegant, as if it had been dusted in fresh snow. But upon closer inspection, we saw it had been painted silvery white. This felt like a cheat—too unnatural for our first real tree.
Nick Wolcyn, who runs the farm with his parents and brothers, chuckled when we mentioned it. “We haven’t pushed those,” he admits, adding that the purist in him doesn’t care for colored trees. Diehard Vikings fans must disagree—the trees painted purple had already sold out.
Fortunately, Wolcyn is brimming with good advice for first-time buyers feeling overwhelmed by the selection. Since it was early December, he steered us toward a Balsam Fir. It won’t last as long as the more popular Fraser, he warned, but it’s more fragrant and actually native to Minnesota. (The Fraser hails from the Carolinas.) Since we’re already partial to overpriced woodsy candles, it wasn’t a hard sell.
Finding the one, however, was proving elusive. After two hours of wandering the fields, the sun was starting to set. We settled on a beauteous Balsam—9 feet tall and extra girthy. Cutting it down was a whole to-do, of course, since we’d never done such a thing before. First we tried filing through the trunk like vintage cartoon lumberjacks, using four hands to tug the saw back and forth. That didn’t work, so one of us splayed belly-down on the ground while the other filmed. (Also not helpful.) Eventually we figured out that sawing down a Christmas tree is a one-person job—and by sawing, we mean hacking at it until it splintered, lost its will to live, and keeled over. Victory was ours!
We dragged our Balsam’s bristly body out to the road and hitched a hayride back to the barn, where it was shaken and baled by teenagers with ruddy pink cheeks and tied atop our car. “The last thing we want to see is one of our trees hanging halfway off a truck going down 35 West,” joked Wolcyn.
The hunt took most of the afternoon, but we capped it with a celebratory dinner at Willards, an ambitious restaurant tucked inside the century-old Leader department store in downtown Cambridge. In March, opening chef Erick Harcey departed, and his sous chef Robert Perkins took over the kitchen, according to Leader owner Grant Johnson. Pivoted and restructured as Leader Restaurant, it’s still a scratch kitchen with Scandinavian flair.
The Leader store stocks high-end apparel and footwear, an array of gift ideas, and has a market of culinary products like bread mixes and jams. “My great grandfather opened the store in 1918,” Johnson says. “We survived the Spanish flu pandemic, and we’ll survive this one.”
When we returned home that night, we couldn’t wait to put up our new tree. Squeezing it through the front door proved challenging. (Rookie move: snipping the baling twine before we got the tree inside.) But the real trick was getting it to stay upright in its stand. Einsteins that we are, it took us a good hour to figure out that it wasn’t the screws that were making our tree all whopper-jawed–it was the jaggedly cut base. Had we known better, we would have sawed it flat while it was still on the lot.
First-timer snafus aside, our tree was stunning. She was a hit at our holiday party and smelled like a hygge-cabin dream. No squirrels leapt out of the branches, nor did we accidentally set the thing on fire. Sparky would be proud.