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Chicago tree farms create magical family memories

Along with candy canes and the man in the red suit, Christmas trees are undoubtedly one of the quintessential symbols of the holiday season. But how often do we stick choosing a Christmas tree at the bottom of the to-do list, grabbing a tree along with some milk and eggs at the big box store of your choice, or making a pit-stop at your corner tree lot before dropping the kids off at soccer practice?

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Picking out a Christmas tree doesn’t have to be a dreaded holiday chore. In fact, it can become a magical family memory, thanks to the variety of tree farms in the Chicagoland area. Cutting down your own tree might sound intimidating, but the experts agree it’s something all families can try—and chances are, you’ll find yourself returning again and again.

“It’s a really fun family experience,” says Kimberly Kuipers, co-owner of Kuipers Family Farm in Maple Park. “It makes a lot of memories.”

Most tree farms in the area offer additional holiday experiences, whether a country store that sells holiday décor or the chance to meet some farm animals. At Oney’s Tree Farm in Woodstock, there are horse-drawn wagon rides, sweet treats in the bakery, and Mrs. Claus telling insider stories about her husband’s 365 red suits, his workout room, and a friendly rodent named the Santa Mouse.

Of course, cutting down your own tree isn’t something that should be done without some forethought. There are a few things to consider ahead of time, including the variety of tree (Google for needle retention, color and shape), and the size. Think about the height and the width that best fits your room before you even get to the farm.

“If you see a tree in a room with walls, doors and windows, that’s one thing,” says Bruce Tammen, owner of Tammen Treeberry Farm in Wilmington. “When it’s out in the open with nothing to compare, people think it’s smaller.”

Bring along a tape measure to make sure it’s the right height, and remember that once you get home the tree will likely have both a stand and a topper, so if you go too tall, you may have to cut off an awful lot.

As for what else to bring, Peterson has a few recommendations. Chainsaws are forbidden at all tree farms in the U.S., so leave yours at home (as well as axes). If you have a bow saw, you can bring it along, although most farms offer them for free use. Bring a tarp to lay on while sawing the tree in case the ground is snowy or wet, or use it to drag the tree back to your car. With little kids, you may want to consider a sled or a wagon so they have somewhere to sit when their legs get a bit worn out.

There’s no minimum age for cutting down a tree—even infants being “worn” by parents are welcome—but older kids can be recruited for the tree-choosing process. Dawn Peterson, owner of Oney’s, suggests rotating through family members each year when it comes to who gets the final say.

“It gives the kids a tremendous sense of satisfaction and self-worth to be the one who picks out the tree,” she says.

She also says that older kids can help out as a grown-up saws by leaning into the tree and removing some of the weight from the tree. Or, give them a specific job, such as laying out the tarp or wrapping the tree, to make them feel like an important part of the process.

On the tree-cutting day, give yourself enough time to pick the perfect tree. Many farms don’t have lights in their fields, so you’ll want to be done before it gets dark. Peterson says to allow an hour and a half for your tree-cutting experience. And be sure to remember that the farms are often much colder than your subdivision or two-flat. Kuipers says to plan for at least 10 degrees colder, and bring along some extra blankets and winter items to bundle up.

Plus, bring your camera or smartphone to document the day.

Most tree farms offer free shaking and baling of trees—at Kuipers, you can go inside and enjoy a free doughnut while they do—and often will help secure it to the roof of your car. If you brought a tarp, it can also be used to protect the tree from the wind, which might dry it out on the ride home.

Before you put the twinkling lights on, Kuipers recommends keeping it in the garage or on the back porch for a few days and giving it lots and lots of water. Since the trees are fresh, they will suck it right up without needing anything sawed off the bottom. Once your tree gets placed in its stand, keep it watered to prevent it sealing up.

And remember, even if your tree doesn’t look like it came from a picture in a catalog, that’s OK.

As Peterson says, “It’s not about being perfect, it’s about creating something beautiful as a family.”

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