12/7/2013 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent
UNISON, Va. — In a very rough translation from the Cyrillic alphabet in use in Russia — S Rozhdestvom. That’s Merry Christmas in Russian.
Since 2006, Counselor of Agriculture Valery Khromchenkov, based at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington, and his brawny helpers have visited Frans Kok’s and Mary Shirley’s Middleburg Christmas Tree Farm in western Loudoun County, eager to find a tree robust enough to take a starring role in the grand reception hall of the embassy.
This year was no different, except they came, found and felled a 20-foot-plus Douglas fir Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving. In past years, they’ve come a few days after Christmas and had their tree up and decorated before Jan. 7, the date of Russian Orthodox Christmas on the Gregorian calendar, which corresponds to Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar.
The embassy will be hosting receptions all month, Khromchenkov said, and this way they can get it decorated a little bit earlier to overlap embassy celebrations with those of the American Christmas.
It all started when the Russians had what Kok terms “a horrible experience” with a Norway spruce purchased somewhere in Maryland. The Norway spruce, Kok said, is a well-documented “needle dropper.” A sneeze can set it off.
That fateful year, the Russian ambassador was toasting the New Year for his assembled guests and every needle hit the floor, all at once — a bare, but decorated tree. The ambassador was not pleased.
The Russians did some research and found Kok’s 125-acre farm, which can offer up to 1,000 trees that have reached the requisite height. Kok said he steered them to the Douglas fir, famed for its needle retention.
Kok and Shirley bought the farm, which is not far from Middleburg, Va., in 1979 and researched how to put it to productive use.
“We pushed the numbers on a lot of crops — sheep, cattle, soybeans, corn — and at that time, nothing made sense. Christmas trees looked like they would make sense from a financial standpoint,” Kok said.
The farm opened to the public in 1985 and sold 600 trees. This year, more than 3,500 Norway spruce, Colorado blue spruce and Douglas fir are waiting for the ever-increasing ranks of cut-your-own customers. Kok said he expects to sell up to 1,800 (the total last year was 1,500) trees this year and to replant 2,500. He has also started a small stand of Concolor fir and will have just 15 of them, 6-foot and taller, available.
A Russian-American cultural exchange provided entertainment for the visiting Russians and the farm’s friends and neighbors, who join in the fun every year. Loudoun Valley High School Band Director Rick Reaves brought his students. Embassy Third Secretary Natalia Dementieva brought a gaggle of students from the embassy high school. They performed Russian folk dances, sang to the accompaniment of the American students’ music, and a good time was had by all
The Russians have modified their expectations for the tree in the past few years, Kok said. Weight got to be an issue — a 6-foot tree weighs not just a little more than a 5-foot tree, but twice as much. Get up to 25 feet or more and you’re talking about a half-ton tree.
With the tree safely wrapped in blue tarps and secured in the embassy van, the crew turned to some serious socializing. Each year, Kok and Shirley put out a spread of smoked salmon on peasant rye, mulled wine and cider, venison chili and the requisite Russian vodka. Khromchenkov’s crew added Russian meat and cabbage-filled pastries.
And S Novim godom — Happy New Year. A tree from Middleburg will be presiding over the festivities at the Embassy of the Russian Federation.