In Holiday Guide

The Carlton clan poses for its annual Christmas tree-chopping photo in 2015.

Why our family holiday tradition is cutting down our own Christmas tree

Tis the season for Milwaukee merriment and BMO Harris Bank is bringing you happy holiday stories all season long.

For my family, the holiday tradition of cutting down our own Christmas tree every year isn't about the actual tree. We're not real tree snobs. We don't do it out of some loftily held haughtiness about their superior freshness and authenticity. Nor do we derive any Ralph Waldo Emerson-esque, transcendentalist pleasure from bonding with nature and selecting the perfect one and wielding an axe and using our own hands and then getting sap on our own hands and later shedding genuine annoying pine needles all over the living room floor.

No, for my family, the holiday tradition of cutting down our own tree every year is about just that: the tradition of doing it. It's as Christmas as cookies and gift wrap. It's something we do together. It's our tradition. I've never known a Christmas without a trip to a tree farm – even when I lived in Texas, my family visited for the holidays and made it a priority to find a local place to chop down a tree for my tiny apartment – and my sister hasn't either.

In fact, neither have my parents since they started dating nearly 40 years ago, save for one Christmas they spent in England. The first annual was in 1977, while living in Washington, D.C., my mom and dad – newly in love, according to sources with intimate knowledge of the relationship – ventured out to Virginia to chop down a Christmas tree, the first time doing so for both of them and their first one together. Since then, they've felled festive timber every year, with the only break in the almost four-decade streak coming in 1983 when, while living in London without a car, they decided against just chopping down any old noble pine in the Royal Parks and ultimately went without one.

Recently, I asked my parents to describe the origin of the tradition. "It sounded romantic," my mom remembered of my outdoorsy dad taking her to the wintry woods to bring back their first Christmas tree. "Mom made me," my dad said, laughing.

I was born in 1988, and we've gone every year. My sister came along six years later, and we didn't stop. As babies, we were brought along in backpacks; as young kids, we wore the oversized puffy winter coats that made us look as wide as we were tall. Now we're both in our 20s and the tradition has continued. We're not a Black Friday sort of family. After Thanksgiving, Mom picks a date for Christmas tree cutting that works for everyone – the earlier in December, the better, so as to beat the choppies-come-latelies and get prime selection – and when it comes time, we pile into the car and drive out to the farm.

Since 2004, we've gone to Rolling Hills Tree Farm in Waldo, which is about 45 miles straight north from Milwaukee. It's a long enough ride that we can even count the drive as spending quality family time together! Jon Bigler, the affable owner of Rolling Hills, has an excellent and expansive operation, along with some family members and employees, offering visitors a tractor ride out to the tree fields – organized by type, including Douglas and Fraser firs, various pine and spruce and others – an axe to saw down your choice, a ride back, a needle-shake and netting, free hot chocolate and plenty of cute ornaments and decorations on sale (this year, I got Freckles the Snowman).

Once we're out there, we scour the fields with the singular focus and determination of a search-and-rescue mission, hunting for the perfect tree. Well actually, what usually happens is my sister and I throw snowballs at each other for a while until – thwack! – my dad, with Rollie Fingers-like accuracy and velocity, reminds us of the important task at hand. We wander through the lanes of trees, perusing and evaluating our options, taking into account height, shape, fullness and branch-and-needle coverage and making scientific-ish comments about whether or not it really looks like a Christmas tree.

Sometimes we find our perfect fit immediately; sometimes it takes 20-30 minutes. Most of the time, we take an analytical approach to choosing just the right tree until we start to feel very cold, at which point we pick the one we're standing in front of.

For the most part, my dad cuts down the tree, but we've all taken our turns. My sister has gotten under that tree, my mom has been down there, sawing and laughing and sliding around on the snow. I remember when I first got to do it, sometime in high school, I felt manly and cool – if only Katie could see me chopping down this 7-foot tree with this rusty bow saw, I thought, she'd surely go to Homecoming with me! It was one of those childhood rites of passage, a coming-of-age moment that was ephemeral and seemingly unimportant at the time, but, in hindsight, absolutely meaningful and happy.

There's other warm nostalgia too, which around the holidays is pleasantly less wistful than sentimental – like bringing our old dog, Riley, who hopped merrily through the deep snow, and making goofy faces for pictures, including an accidental one where I'm passionately holding the tree up and looking like I'm enjoying its needly embrace a little bit too much.

We've brought others into our tradition over the years, which is a wonderful way to recall people who have come and gone from our lives. There have been extended family members, friends and former girlfriends, some who celebrate Christmas and some who don't but still cherish the experience.

One of the micro-traditions within the tradition is that I always underdress, because I always think it's going to be warmer than is it, because of a combination of under-planning and being an idiot. Annually, my family will remark on how I'm not wearing a warm-enough jacket, or boots, or why don't I have gloves? To which I always reply, "I'll be fine," an inaccurate statement that is invariably followed by – about 45 minutes later – my borrowing someone's hat and huddling on a haystack in the corner of the tractor, blowing on my hands.

It's a tradition that's become our favorite family tradition because it's something that we do as a full family. We have other traditions, like decorating the tree (led by mom), Christmas brunch (eggs benedict, made by dad), exchanging ornaments (my sister gets an angel every year, I get a Santa, and my dad usually gives my mom a new one). But this is the one that we always do all together, no matter what. It's a tradition as old as my and my sister's ages combined. It's the one we know we're doing every year, the one we look forward to.

Our personal situations, emotional stabilities, mental and spiritual outlooks may not always be the same or in sync; the newest electronics, fashions and other gifts we exchange may change. But we know one thing that won't.

We're going to pick out and cut down our own damn Christmas tree, every year, because it's what we do. It's our family tradition, and I love it.

Happy holidays and a happier New Year, Milwaukee!

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