Nova Scotia: Always a home for the holidays

The rocky shoreline of Canada's second-smallest province is filled with Old World holiday charm.
Laris Karklis - Washington Post
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.

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