For many, the image of an unidentified guy lurking about the woods with a bow saw in hand is something straight out of a horror flick. But for Mark Hansen, it's a heart-warming vision of the holiday season.
Mark and his brothers run the Hansen Tree Farm in Ramsey, Minn. It's one of those cut-your-own kind of places. When you drive up, they hand you a jagged blade, a map of the grounds and a flashlight -- just in case your family can't come to a consensus before the sun goes down.
Mark says his goal is to make sure customers head home with the perfect tree, the one they see when they close their eyes and think of Christmas morning.
"One person's beautiful tree is one person's ugly tree," said Mark. "I try not to give people too many opinions. I ask them what they like and then point them in the right direction. We've got 40 acres of tree here and if somebody describes a tree they want, I'll tell them where to go."
When most people have strong opinions about what makes a good Christmas tree, few can explain the seemingly innate desire to chop down an evergreen and stick it in the corner of the living room.
"It's a little weird. We put lights on the outside of our house and we put trees on the inside," said one tree seeker.
"It is kind of random," remarked another. "It didn't come from the story of Jesus being born, I don't think. I have no idea where that came from."
These days, it's hard to imagine celebrating Christ's birth without first sprucing up an evergreen. But the Christmas tree as we know it today is actually the product of countless legends and customs, many of which began long before the arrival of the Christian savior.
Everyone from ancient Egyptians to Celtic Druids centered celebrations around conifers. Because they stayed green in the winter while other trees and shrubs appeared dead, evergreens grew to represent everlasting life.
Scandinavians brought these trees inside, hoping to give the fairies, believed to live in their branches, a break from the cold. And Germans displayed evergreens in their homes as a reminder that the harsh weather would eventually come to an end.
For a tradition with such vague and varied origins, the Christmas tree has become an integral part of the modern-day advent season.
The White House has an annual tree. So does the Vatican. And in the Twin Cities, you can spot decorated evergreens in the window of an erotic gift shop, next to the Koi pond in an upscale Vietnamese restaurant, even at the end of the plumbing aisle at Menard's.
In fact, the home-improvement chain has a virtual forest of trees on display. Some sport garland and colored bulbs. Others look as though they were decorated by people who'd had something much stronger than sugar plums dancing in their heads.
For example, there's the synthetic spruce wrapped with lights that resemble frosty mugs of beer. Hanging from it are little plastic men in camouflage jumpsuits aiming shot guns.
Then there's the artificial fir that seems to showcase items straight off the store's shelves. Its ornaments consist of fishing bobbers and work gloves. Fly swatters poke out from between the branches. And somehow, a plastic folding chair balances on the lower bough.
When Europeans first began decorating holiday trees, they used things like apples, a nod to Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Or they chose small, white wafers, to represent the Holy Eucharist, or body of Christ.
The tree at Menard's? It's adorned with packages of Beef Jerky.
Back at the Hansen Tree Farm, family negotiations are wrapping up.
"We're going to put the tree in a corner so we can hide the uneven spots," explained one father to his skeptical family.
People who make it through 364 days of the year without coming in contact with any hand tools try their luck at sawing down trees.
But, really, there are no "timber" moments. When they're cut, the evergreens just kind of lean over and slowly come to a rest on the ground.
The chosen ones are strapped to the tops of SUVs and mini-vans. They'll soon be surrounded by brightly wrapped presents. And come January, they'll be set out on the curb to be hauled away.
You think it'd be heartbreaking for owner Mark Hansen to know that his well-tended trees will end up in a landfill with old milk cartons and broken lamps and empty bottles of floor cleaner. But he says that doesn't bother him too much.
"Once in a while somebody is driving down the highway and they didn't tie it on good. Now that upsets me," admitted Mark.
When it all comes to it, though, Mark says he's just proud to be part of the time-honored, albeit curious, Christmas tradition.