Deck the Halls

Fir Fight

Shrubs are out. Time for an Oregon tree in the White House.

By Nino Padova August 15, 2012 Published in the December 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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WASHINGTON may be the Evergreen State, but Oregon ought to be the Christmas Tree State. After all, we harvest the most Yuletide trees in the nation—eight million a year. Yet for the past 16 years, the White House has snubbed Oregon when it came time to choose the official Christmas tree. While North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin, and even Ohio (Ohio?!) all have sent winners to the Blue Room, an Oregon conifer hasn’t graced 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since the elder Bush was in office.

So what’s the deal, DC? What did we do to lose your Yuletide love? Perhaps the Clintons were holding a grudge against us for sending Lewis & Clark College grad Monica Lewinsky to Washington. But what about the current administration? Did our perpetual blue-state status turn them off? Utterly stumped, we investigated.

Turns out, being picked to supply the official White House tree is a knotty affair, and one that requires both a little bit of luck and a great deal of persistence. And it’s a decision in which the White House, actually, has little say: The honor of providing the First Family’s tree goes to the winner of the National Christmas Tree Association’s competition, which takes place during the organization’s annual convention in August. If the convention happens to be in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a farmer in Corvallis needs to figure out how to transport his choicest fir 2,300 miles without it showing up drooping like a jet-lagged Henry Kissinger.

“People do all sorts of crazy things to keep their trees fresh,” says Bob Kintigh, the last Oregonian to take foliage to the Blue Room, in 1992. “They’ll rent refrigerator trucks. I once loaded mine into our station wagon and drove it myself—at night and with the air conditioner blasting.”

Like your typical OCD dad at the corner Christmas lot, judges shake, prod, and comb the trees, looking for the freshest, densest, and most symmetrical specimen. The winner is crowned Grand Champion, and the farmer who grows it earns a visit from the White House chief usher and groundskeeper. Then things get even trickier. The official First Family Christmas tree must stand exactly 18½ feet tall. (Any shorter and the wires that hang from the ceiling to power the tree lights will show; and that simply wouldn’t do, not in the White House.)

What if the winner doesn’t have a tree about the size of two and a half Greg Odens? “You borrow one,” says John Tillman, a Rochester, Washington, tree farmer whose Douglas fir was crowned Grand Champion in 2004. “That’s the kicker. You might win the competition with an 8-foot tree, but the White House wants one that’s 18½. Lucky for me, I have generous neighbors who gave me one of their trees.”

Now that’s what we call a bailout.

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