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Nova Scotia: Always a home for the holidays

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:56 AM

Step inside the Christmas Island post office in Nova Scotia and you will feel it immediately, a rush of holiday spirit that hits you like a swig of eggnog or a whiff of roasting chestnuts. Santa figurines in various poses adorn the shelves, and bowls of candy canes and jelly beans provide envelope lickers with a sweet reprieve. Seasonal cards hang from a string along the ceiling, prayer flags of a different denomination. And in the back left corner, a woman younger than Mrs. Claus and taller than an elf stamped the Christmas Island postmark on a tumbling stack of cards.

"The people who come here are so full of spirit," said postmistress Hughena MacKinnon, who during the season dons an apron inspired by a Santa suit. "They like to add the special touch of the Christmas Island post stamp."

In Nova Scotia, holiday traditions and sentiment stir up as much excitement as gift-wrapped baubles and Santa sightings. The spirit that blows in from the North Pole by way of Bethlehem is powerful throughout the province, where deep cultural mores and a love-the-guy-next-door ethos still persist. It visits, like Saint Nick, the shore towns, rural villages and larger cities, and transforms the thickets of Balsam firs into an enchanted Christmas tree forest. Most tellingly, it possesses the residents, who think nothing of driving severalhours for a wreath-shaped postmark. In honor of the upcoming holiday, I decided to have myself a merry little Nova Scotia Christmas. I would drive along the rocky shoreline and through the scented coniferous groves of Canada's second-smallest province, dropping into communities that still uphold ancestral customs from the Old World. Ultimately, I hoped to capture some of that ineffable holiday spirit and bring it home. As long as it was not a live plant or an animal, U.S. border patrol would have to let it through.

Along the south shore, I couldn't see anything through the trees. The balsam firs surrounded me on all sides. I tried peering through the gaps in the needles but saw only more needles and gaps filled by more needles. When I craned my neck to look over the conical tops, I was stonewalled by more pointy sprouts. The landscape was like an outdoor fun house of mirrors, except that this was no illusion: This was Lunenburg County, the Balsam Fir Christmas Tree Capital of the World.

The conifers thrive in Nova Scotia's maritime environment, noted for its dry, rocky soil and the moisture from the Atlantic. The trees cover nearly every available piece of real estate in this region, a wealth in numbers that inspired an entire industry tailored for one eve and one day of the year.

"Everything you do all year is preparing for Christmas," said Lila Naugler, who runs a 1,000-acre tree farm and wreathmaking operation outside the town of Lunenburg with her husband. "Now is the big rush to get them loaded."

Settled by German and Swiss immigrants in the mid-1700s, Lunenburg County counts the harvesting of firs as its third-biggest industry. In the 1970s, when business was booming, area growers shipped 6 million trees; today, the number is closer to 2 million, a decrease caused in part by the weak exchange rate with the United States and tougher competition from other international suppliers. The county has also produced a number of the prestigious trees selected each year as a gift to Boston, a "Thank you, Beantown" for the city's aid after the Halifax Explosion of December 1917. (In short, two ships collided, causing a blast that devastated the capital.)

"Nothing smells like balsam," said Naugler, comparing the fir with its less fragrant brothers, Fraser and Douglas. "It smells like Christmas." The scent: piney and cool, like a menthol popsicle.

Around Lunenburg, residents turn their front yards into small-scale Christmas tree lots, the conifers set in tidy rows as they await adoption. Wreaths are also trotted out for sale, some so close to the road, you could untie the red bows through the passenger window.

"All you have to do is knock on the door and ask, 'Will you teach me how to make a wreath?' " Naugler said. "They will invite you inside and show you how."

Instead of cold-calling, I prearranged a lesson with Naugler, who started the online Wreath Co. of Nova Scotia five years ago and can whip one together in eight minutes flat.

Seated at her kitchen table, her black Labrador slobbering away at my feet, I watched her array the supplies, a 10-inch metal ring, wire, piles of fir tips and decorations from Michael's crafts supply store. She briefly demonstrated how to cut off the tips and hips from the bottom branches (earlier collected from her property), combining them to create frond-like hands with fat green fingers. Next, she anchored the wire on the ring, placed a "hand" on a section of the ring, twisted the wire three times over the greenery, then flipped the whole piece over to attach fir to the backside. Around and around she went, her fingers moving in time with her chatter.

When she disappeared to retrieve pine cones, I attempted a segment, the sap covering my fingers in a sticky film. I did my best to cover the wire but figured I could hide the flaws with bows, wooden snowflakes, holly and, as a last resort, a parade of teddy bears.

"It's the easiest thing in the world to do," said the retired educator, grinning approvingly at my work. "If a former teacher can do it, anyone can."

For the final step, she presented a bent wire hanger as a cheap, simple way to attach the wreath to the door. I secretly anointed her the Martha Stewart of the Maritimes.

The Nauglers sell most of their trees to Panama and, during the crunch before Christmas, at an outdoor market in the parking lot of a Halifax hockey stadium. For a U-cut farm closer by, I drove over to Kevin Veinotte's place, down a rutted road that slices through forested land. Three years ago, the family opened up 22 acres to public tree pickers, allowing them to wander through the firs like Hansel and Gretel in search of their dream Christmas tree.

"Did you come with a saw?" asked a young boy dressed like a miniature Paul Bunyan.

I had left mine back at Home Depot, so he offered to lend me one, or do the chopping himself.

So that customers can check out the merchandise without muddying their feet, the organic farm offers weekend wagon rides powered by a pair of shaggy Belgian horses. In the front seat, the capped driver held on to one set of reins and his baby son; behind him, his 3-year-old daughter commanded a second pair of leather straps, her tiny hands lightly jiggling the controls.

I climbed up and joined a family of three generations that was touring the property while Kevin baled their tree and placed it beside their car. "He has a lot of nice trees," said the grandmother of the clan. "Next time, I'll walk back farther."

As the horses trotted down the undulating lane, I scanned the scenery for the perfect tree, basically Rockefeller Center's but downsized for a studio apartment. However, according to Kevin, the supermodels of balsams are shaped like an upside-down old-fashioned ice cream cone. Cocking my head to the side, I mentally tagged a 10-foot-tall pistachio cone. (Because we can't bring back plants, consider the tree hunt a fact-finding mission.)

The extended wagon ride loops around the property, with a midway stop at a warming station, where a fire roared and crackled. Before breaking for hot chocolate and cookies, we passed a tree with a Molson can secured to a branch. "Canadian ornaments?" I asked. No, just a local marking his pick.

So much of Christmas is about believing, so I went to Yarmouth hoping with a full heart that the story was true: That Meredith Willson did indeed write the popular 1951 Christmas tune "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" in the Grand Hotel, once the fairest establishment in this far west town of seafarers. I would even have settled for the notion that he was inspired by the setting but did the actual creative work elsewhere.

The line that supports the lore is: "There's a tree in the Grand Hotel, one in the park as well." A good start, but the problem is, there is no historical proof. The man himself never identified the Grand Hotel's location, nor did a historian ever find a matchbook or receipt among his belongings.

To dig into the legend, I visited the Rodd Grand Yarmouth, which stands on the same site as the original, torn down in the late 1960s, but does not replicate its Victorian style and elegance. At the front desk, an employee named Anthony conceded that a Christmas tree most likely decorated the Grand Hotel's lobby back then and that a park sits across the street. The town used to place a Christmas tree in the aptly named Frost Park, before moving it outside Town Hall.

"Circumstantially, it fits," he said, "but it's still unproven."

For proof that can stand up to heavy scholarship, I met with Bruce Bishop, director of the Yarmouth County Museum and Archives. Over a Christmas Eve sampler of rappie pie (an Acadian specialty with shredded potato and meat) and seafood stew (straight from the docks), he told me it was possible that Willson visited Yarmouth in the 1950s.

Starting in the mid-1800s, the town marketed itself to American East Coasters as a respite from the summer heat, tempting them with the prospect of cooling fog. Ferries traveled between Yarmouth and such Eastern seaboard cities as New York and Boston. The boats dropped off lobsters, blueberries and lumber and returned with tourists. (Last year, the ferries were canceled; no word on whether service will return for the town's 250th anniversary next year.)

Bishop recently had museum volunteers scour the hotel's registry from 1950 to 1951, searching for the songwriter's signature. "We found another Wilson from Boston, with a different first name," he said. "Maybe he came in 1949."

Still lacking corroboration, I decided to parse the song to see whether the lyrics matched the scenes of Yarmouth. With lighted wreaths on the lampposts along Main Street and the decorated tree by Town Hall, it was definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I saw toys in the storefront windows; however, unfamiliar with Canada's gun control laws, I did not know whether a shop could legally display a pistol. Moving along: I stood before the glittery Christmas tree in the (Rodd) Grand hotel and glanced out at the park, where a gazebo aglow with colored lights stood in for the Christmas tree.

Any lingering doubts were dispelled the next morning: A soft snow had fallen overnight, dressing up the city in its holiday best. It looked just like Christmas.

If Christmas Island truly honored its namesake, the post office's special edition postmark would feature the image of the local Mi'kmaq man whose festive surname now appears on maps of Cape Breton Island, the northernmost part of Nova Scotia. Yet no purists made a ruckus when former postmistress Margaret Rose MacNeil proposed a pictorial postmark that played up the holly-jolly appellation. The first one came out in 1994, featuring a wreath encircled by the letters of the town. A Christmas Island tradition was born.

"We have different versions each year. We make design changes - we may take away the leaves or add ornaments. We've had a Christmas tree coming out of an envelope and holly on a mailbox," said MacKinnon, a Cape Breton native who replaced MacNeil 12 years ago. "But we like to stay with the wreath. I like its message of wishing for good health."

The post office stands alone, a solitary box set back from a rural road, with unfettered views of Christmas Island pond and a small island overrun by nature. Occasionally, a car drives by. Frequently, that car stops outside the front door. In the absence of a diner, a bar or a barbershop, the post office has become a giant water cooler, where locals swap news and good wishes.

The Christmas Island post office serves 140 customers, but once the stamp is released in mid-November, business explodes. (They keep it around until mid-January.) MacKinnon said she receives up to 10 times as much mail during the holidays. In a record holiday season (1996-97), she processed 23,000 cards. Once, the lieutenant governor dropped off 2,500 envelopes over two days. This season, she expects to hand-stamp 14,000 to 17,000 pieces.

On the 23rd day before Christmas, the morning count was in the low triple digits - a slow day, according to MacKinnon. To maintain some order, she kept the pile of envelopes addressed to the post office in a box, which contained numerous cards that needed the finishing touch. On top of that, visitors stopped by throughout the day to drop off their loads, often carried in multiple plastic bags.

"Let me shake your hand. I have always wanted to meet you," exclaimed Cathy Finney, who had driven an hour south, her husband in tow. "Every year, we say we are going to do this. This year, we were determined to do it."

Finney left behind 24 cards and a warm handprint on MacKinnon's palm.

While MacKinnon tended to customers at the counter, I nominated myself her elf and dug into the paper mounds. I ripped open envelopes, shaking the packages before placing the cards over by the workstation with ink pads and two stamps (one red, one green). Often the senders include a personal note to MacKinnon, expressing their gratitude on decorative stationery or the lip of the envelope.

"We really appreciate the wonderful work you do and the joy it brings to the recipients of the cards when they see that they have been sent from Christmas Island," read one note. In another, she received a gift of Year of the Tiger stamps, with the inscription: "A few stamps for your kindness."

"Maybe he thought I would run out," she quipped.

Following MacKinnon's instructions, I pressed one wreath on the actual stamp and another on a clean part of the envelope, in case collectors wanted a pure form for their books. Advance apologies to those whose wreaths turned out half-formed, too light, lopsided or too smudgy.

Before the post office closed for lunch, I pulled out one of my own Christmas cards and slid it over to MacKinnon for a one-two stamp. I was going to spread Nova Scotia's holiday spirit by first-class mail.

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