Like most everything in 2020, Christmas is looking to be a bit different this year. For many who heeded COVID warnings, Thanksgiving already fell victim to the rampaging virus, with infections skyrocketing in Deschutes County, most of Oregon, and the nation as a whole.

Although promises of a vaccine are tantalizingly close, all indications are that the heightened danger from the virus will continue for at least several more months. So, this is definitely not the year for the kind of Griswold-family Christmas portrayed in National Lampoon’s 1989 movie, “Christmas Vacation.” In that holiday comedy classic, multiple generations, including elderly grandparents and shirttail relatives converge to share the holidays together; and that just can’t be the model for 2020.

Still, the holiday season is upon us. Christmas advertising is already staking its claim to television, and Hallmark Christmas movies have been playing for months. So, for many of us, one of the first activities that kicks off the season is finding a Christmas tree.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the first historical record of a Christmas tree dates to 1510 in Latvia. Oregon is, by far, the nation’s largest producer of commercial Christmas trees, doubling the production of its nearest rival, North Carolina.

Here in Sisters Country, however, we are surrounded by thousands of potential Christmas trees right here in our local forests. Each year, the U. S. Forest Service hosts thousands of private Christmas tree hunters; and, with COVID lurking, there is no better way to obtain your Christmas tree than by having a safe hunt for a wild Christmas tree in the great outdoors.

The first step, of course, is to obtain a Forest Service Christmas tree permit. One twist in this COVID year is that the local Sisters Ranger District office is not open for the purchase of permits. However, permits may be purchased online at https://www.recreation.gov/tree-permits/ or at one of several commercial outlets, including Sisters Ace Hardware, Bi-Mart, Sisters Mainline (Chevron) Station, Sisters Rental, and the Camp Sherman Store.

Kassidy Kern, public affairs specialist for the Deschutes National Forest is, herself, a big fan of the annual tree hunt. “This year has been pretty intense,” she said. “I’ve seen so many people already putting up their Christmas tree or lights to capture that spirit of joy even earlier, and I have decided to join in as well. I would normally wait until around the first weekend of December to get my tree, but I’m actually getting it Thanksgiving week. Putting up the Christmas tree at this point in the season is doing what I hoped it would do — bringing warmth to my heart and home.”

Amy Lowe, Contracting Officer for the Deschutes/Ochoco National Forests and mother to three boys, is a Christmas-tree-hunting enthusiast, as well. “It’s our time to pack some hot chocolate and sandwiches, get the sleds out and make a day of it,” she said. “We trade our minivan in for the truck and all of us pile in to...find that perfect fir tree for our home. I want my boys to treasure these memories we’re making in the forest; and, hopefully, they’ll want to do this with their own families when they grow up as well.”

Christmas tree permits cost $5 each, and up to five permits are permitted per household. Keep in mind that a Forest Service permit is valid only on Forest Service lands, so tree hunters must be certain that the selected tree is not on private land. If unsure, it is a good idea to have a Forest Service map that clearly shows forest boundaries. Trees selected for cutting must be at least 200 feet from state highways, picnic areas, campgrounds or other developed sites. Trees within 300 feet of streams and lakes are also off limits.

Other guidelines include selecting a tree that is no more than 12 feet tall; so no Griswold-style antics, please. Trees taller than 12 feet require a special permit. The tree to be cut must also be within 15 feet of another tree; so, if the tree is standing alone in an open space, find another tree. Complete copies of Christmas-tree-hunting guidelines and regulations can be obtained online and wherever tree permits are sold.

Another change for 2020 is that the Forest Service’s program of free trees for fourth-graders has been expanded to include fourth- and fifth-graders. To claim one of those free Christmas-tree permits, visit https://everykidoutdoors.gov/index.htm. A free holiday-tree permit can then be obtained at https://www.recreation.gov/tree-permits.

Finally be sure that your Christmas tree hunt is a safe one and be properly equipped. Also, unlike the Griswolds, remember to bring a hand-saw or axe as well, along with winter clothing and safety equipment. Tire chains and a shovel are recommended, as is extra food, drinking water, blankets, a flashlight, first-aid kit and survival gear. Tree cutting and travel can take longer than anticipated, so notify friends or family of your destination and return time. Be sure to leave the woods well before dark.

Kern had some specific safety advice for tree hunters:

“We have had a decent amount of snow this year so make sure that you are ready for winter conditions with good tires, and if you start running into more than a few inches of snow on the road, stop, get out and walk or be prepared with some skis or snowshoes. Making a family memory of finding the right Christmas tree could easily take a turn if you get stuck in deep snow or muddy conditions, ruining the whole experience. Be prepared, but be flexible in your plans so everyone can have a great time and then get home safely.”

If multiple households are involved in your tree hunt, separate vehicles should be used to promote COVID safety. While outdoor activities are generally safer in the prevention of virus spread, masks should also be employed if safe distancing is not possible.

Also, keep in mind that children have a tendency to wander off, so keep a close eye on children while in the woods. If you travel any significant distance from your vehicle, you should be prepared for outdoor winter travel; and remember that winter weather conditions can change rapidly.