I grew up in the evergreen-covered foothills of Northern California where getting a Christmas tree each year usually involved cutting a tree right from our own property. We took a jagged old handsaw and never wore gloves, returning home covered in sap and the glorious scent of fir trees.

Those trees were not the lush, thickly branched trees of Christmas stories. They were spindly, silvery trees that were as beautiful to me as the glittery tinsel and lights that adorned them. For years after I left home, I never had a tree of my own, often traveling back to my parent’s house where they would have a large, local tree as the centerpiece of their living room. When I met my now husband, we started our own Christmas tree tradition. In fact, my proposal and ring were hanging on our very first Christmas tree, in a little box that almost could have been mistaken for an ornament.

For the next couple of years while I worked at a plant nursery, we tried the living tree route. Those trees, root ball and all, rarely actually lived. At least one of them ended up in a large local park, covertly planted under cover of darkness.

Later, we upgraded to Christmas tree lot selections. We lived in the heart of San Francisco, without a car, so those trees were toted home over shoulder, or on public transit, and once via little red wagon. We even had the bright idea to do an upside-down Christmas tree one year, strung from the ceiling of our studio apartment with fishing line. (Turns out, they dry out really quickly so this one’s best for party decor.)

When we had our son (and a car) we started the tradition of journeying out to a Bay Area Christmas tree farm and cutting our own. In addition to bringing the joy of the fresh tree home, the entire experience became something we all treasured. From the sawing and hauling to the humorous attempts to get it onto our compact car and back onto the freeway, we’ve made it an annual event. A Christmas tree farm trip is never the same twice.

Our first u-cut tree was so tall that we couldn’t stand it up, even in our vaulted Victorian ceiling. Because most farms provide you with a sharp saw, as renting city-dwellers we didn’t own many tools beyond a pair of pruners and a drill. This meant that when we got home, we needed to lop off about six inches from the thickest part of the trunk. Pruners were literally not going to cut it. And no one wants to travel miles for the perfect tree only to lop off the perfect top! Our landlord lent us a rusty saw, which was still sharp enough to get the job done (on the sidewalk below).

We left that tree up long past New Year’s Day. It stayed fresh and we couldn’t quite bear to take down the beauty that had cost us so much effort.

Two Christmases ago, we made a huge family decision and relocated from California to Minnesota. The tree farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin are just as abundant as the many wonderful apple orchards and we embraced our new adventure with warmer coats and sharper tools. Our first year took us to a small “mom and pop” operation. The original owners were close to retirement and were there with their grandkids, serving candy canes and cocoa and binding up the trees. They talked to every single customer like we were a family member. It was our first Christmas in our new home, and when we brought the tree home the smell transported me right back to those early years of foraging for a Christmas tree in my parent’s woods. It was then, I think, that our house really began to feel like a home.

The next holiday season we headed to a larger, lush farm in Wisconsin where we spent over an hour selecting the perfect tree. We walked to the very outer regions of the farm, away from the crowds, and chose our tree carefully. (Hauling it back was harder than selecting it, that’s for sure). We even brought along our dog.

This year, we’ll head to a new farm. There are so many to choose from and we love exploring different ones every year. I’m a long way from the foothills of California, from the spindly silver firs of my childhood. But every time I put up a real tree, and I inhale that fresh scent of the needles, I know that I am home for the holidays.