It all started when I was 10-years old. My parents gathered my brother, sister and I into the family van and we drove to the only farm in our Southern California town: a Christmas tree farm.

It was love at first sight: the gorgeous rows of green, the rolling hills, and the unmistakable smell that means one thing: Christmas.

From there, it was history. Every year for the past 20+ I have spent the Saturday before Christmas racing through the neat and tidy rows of Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Monterey Pines and Leland Cyprus in search of the crown jewel of our holiday decor, the perfect Christmas tree.

My love affair with Christmas has always been rooted in tradition and never more so than our annual trips to the tree farm. We’ve spent these precious Saturdays under torrential downpours, dry and blustery mornings, sweltering afternoons and one year, staying away from the rows of trees that somehow survived that year’s fire season. Crazy California weather has nothing on our Christmas tree farms! We’ve waited beside our fellow comrades in arms, Southern California natives who cherish the chance to partake in the annual ritual of waiting (sometimes a few hours) for the farm to open.

What started as a tradition my parents decided on a whim, has become the day I look forward to most throughout the year. As a newlywed, I introduced my husband to the magic of a live tree farm, and when my daughter was born and made her first trip to the tree farm? Let’s just say my life was complete. It’s been over twenty years and I’ve yet to miss that special Saturday.

I’d be lying if I said the thought of pulling an artificial tree down from the attic has never appealed to me. Those years we’ve had to borrow a car, rent a truck, or wrangle a tree with an absurdly crooked trunk into the tree stand have made me question my wisdom in our tradition. But seeing the excitement on my daughter’s face erases any doubt. Sweeping up pine needles and scraping sap off our hands is well worth it.

Living in Southern California means we never have a white Christmas and typical holiday traditions like sleigh rides and walking through winter wonderlands are things we only see on television. We usually trade our sandals for closed toes shoes and pull on a light sweater to visit the tree farm as opposed to shrugging on a parka and boots, but these traditions are ours. We may not be roasting chestnuts on an open fire, but we sure are picking the most delicious smelling tree out there.

Coming downstairs every morning in December is like walking into a holiday forest. And while I have to set a reminder to water our tree every day, it’s worth every pine needle stuck in my hair as I slide under the boughs with a watering can.

When I really think about it, our Christmas tree really serves as the center of many our family’s traditions. Picking out just the right one, then spending an entire afternoon decorating it while we listen to a Charlie Brown Christmas signals the start of the season. It’s time for matching decor and gifts to go under the lush branches, and to whip up our family recipe of butter cookies in the shape of––you guessed it––Christmas trees! And let’s not forget all those amazing photo ops standing in front of the tree.

Is it Christmas yet?!

Even though a live tree won’t hold out the entire year like it’s artificial brothers and sisters, neither will anything replace our family’s tradition of finding the perfect one. Saying goodbye is always a bit sad, but it’s never for long.

There’s always next year.