Treasure Hunt

We found Christmas in the unlikeliest of places

cutting down christmas tree

My youngest was strapped in a Baby Bjorn the first year our family cut our Christmas tree at Roll Out Farm in Pilot, Va.

It wasn’t the first time we’d trekked to a Christmas tree farm. We had visited other places that were closer, and flashier, with horse-drawn carriages and wreath-making barns and larger-than-life blow-ups of chimneys and elves.

But on that sunny December day when my seven-year-old and four-year-old tumbled out of our minivan into the high grass atop a tall knob, we were hooked. The big sky and kindly smile of the teddy-bear-of-an owner called to us all.

We cut down our tree that day, but we also bobbed and weaved through a stand of tall pines, ran up and around stair-step junipers and spruce. We gulped in cold mountain air, collected piles of pine cones, then warmed our toes in a little hut near our car. By the time we left, this place had found a home in our hearts.

The next year we slid our CD of Christmas carols into the player and made the long drive through the country back to Roll Out Farm. I think that was the December we began our traditions of rolling down the impossibly long hills and playing a never-ending game of hide-and-seek among the tidy trees.

We were often one of only a handful of families racing through the rows. The owner at Roll Out would marvel that we drove so far, year after year, to cut down seven feet of boughs. But somehow, his farm became our farm.

The following year we traveled over the river and through the woods to find the farm blanketed in several inches of snow. There’d only been a few slushy flakes at home but we’d hoped Roll Out might have more. So, along with our snacks and coats and gloves and saw and ropes and Christmas tunes, we’d packed our red plastic sled.

We chose our tree first. My nine-, six- and three-year-olds gallumping through the wet fluff. We hauled it to the top of a hill to be later carried out over my husband’s shoulder, Santa-style.

Then, we started to sled. The snow was packed and fast in between the trees. The hill ended at a little road. Beyond that was a ditch of brambles and a tiny creek.

The delight that year was palpable, shrieks and cheers and pure wonder, three sibs taking turns, celebrating a snow that wasn’t rightfully theirs.

“Last run!” I called. My son scrambled onto the sled. My husband gave him a shove and he absolutely flew. I couldn’t run fast enough to beat him to the bottom. But I did see him go across the road. And into the ditch. I heard a crack. And then nothing. I kept running.

He hit his head hard, had a cut on his face. He was babbling nonsense and beginning to panic. My brain flipped through its rolodex of symptoms. This boy had a concussion. We had to head home. Now.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. Scooping up our scattered belongings, saying a curt goodbye, strapping a tree to the car and hitting the road.

My son was fine. Is fine. But I was so, so scared.

The next year, we traveled to Roll Out again. Even after that.

What is perfect, exactly? Because there is no worthier season than Christmas to yearn for perfection. Perfect dress, perfect gift, perfect guest list, perfect card. Each moment is scripted for that photo, that memory, that stand-back-in-the-kitchen-and-watch-the-perfect-scene-unfold-and-feel-so-satisfied instant.

To many, Roll Out Farm would not measure up. The pesticide-free trees we brought home had bits of forest still living in their branches — teeny surprise pinecones, spider webs, even remnants of birds’ nests.

In later years when the trees had grown too tall to fit in most houses, the folks at the farm told us to cut them higher on the trunk, custom-fitting our tree to our room. It was a generous gesture, a necessary survival technique and a fun puzzle to imagine how the top half of a tree would look as our decoration. But maybe less than perfect.

Back in 2011, Roll Out’s owners fashioned a tree shaker from an old washing machine agitator. It was loud. And ingenious. And hilarious. I don’t know about picture perfect.

And yet, Roll Out Farm was perfect for us — the family that wanted to make a day of their Christmas tree hunt, that wanted to feel a kind of elusive peace as much as we wanted to bring home a prize.

For one day every December we craved the simple: hide-and-seek in our coats, itchy grass under our heads, the chance to stare for as long as we liked at the weakening sun.

Roll Out Farm gave us that for eight years, even as the kids kept growing and the world kept changing.

You may have guessed how this story ends. Roll Out Farm didn’t open last November.

We still took a Sunday and a saw and some ropes and we cut down our tree at another, closer-by spot.

We had more time to decorate together as we drove less. My kids are teens and tweens now, so after our every-year dinner of chili and cornbread, they headed upstairs to finish their homework.

It was fine. It was good.

It wasn’t perfect.

This year we’ll try another farm. Maybe we’ll like it better. Maybe not.

But we’ll always have our memories of those suspended December days when Christmas came to mean being together, depending on the kindness of a man we barely knew but counted as a friend, finding beauty in the needles and the grass and the air.

Thank you for that, Roll Out Farm. It was just perfect.

This essay first appeared in The Roanoker magazine’s November/December 2019 issue.