Trudging through the thigh-deep soft snow last December, in the middle of a huge swath of Northern Ontario’s boreal forest, the only visible tracks into the woods were ours. Muffled shrieks of joy were coming out from behind my kids’ thick scarfs and zipped-up collars—there were no other noises but the occasional buzz of far-off snowmobiles and the steady thud of the axe as my husband cut down our soon-to-be Christmas tree.

As I watched my family taking such joy in this raw, winter wonderland, and with such ease, I had a moment of head-shaking laughter wondering, “How in the heck did we get here?”

Well, in the literal sense, it was quite simple. We bundled up in our warmest snow gear, packed the snowshoes, a map, and the dog, and drove 25 minutes outside of the city to find some crown land off a secondary highway. This is what getting a Christmas tree looks like for a lot of families in Northwestern Ontario, where the government encourages us to cut down our own trees from its plentiful forests.

After the holidays, we can drop our trees off at a citywide collection site to be mulched for use in parks and planters around town. It’s a beautifully authentic and sustainable holiday tradition, but one that took us more than 10 years to work up to.

In the beginning, my husband couldn’t even convince me to decorate for Christmas, let alone get a tree. Between the lack of space in our 550 square foot apartment in downtown Toronto, and our two tree-climbing, decoration-smashing cats, a tree just seemed like too much trouble.

My mom eventually intervened in what she felt was my Scrooge-like attitude towards Christmas, and gave us a fake, 3 feet short, holiday-music-playing tree that once belonged to my grandmother. We didn’t have to decorate it that first year, thanks to the built in fiber-optic lights mixed in between its plastic needles. It even fit nicely up on a bookshelf away from the cats (and later, the crawling babies). It was a ridiculous tree, but I can’t deny that it was fun to watch my little toddlers “oooh” and “aww“ as the lights magically changed colours, and it became a perfect spot to hang their fast-growing collection of handmade Christmas arts and crafts.

When we moved into our first house in Winnipeg, my husband rejoiced in the space and freedom to create some holiday spirit on a bigger scale. He hung strings of multi-coloured lights on the front of the house and in our yard, and bought us some beautiful glass ornaments to add to our little fake tree on Christmas morning—but its plastic needles were too thin and light to hold them. We needed a bigger tree to accommodate our budding holiday tradition.

So, during boxing week sales that year, I relented and invested in a heavily discounted tree stand, lights, tinsel and one box of 100 shatterproof Martha Stewart tree decorations. I was all in—but in a frugal, sticking-to-a-budget, Scroogey kind of way.

For the next four years, even when the bitter, Winnipeg winter wind was burning our cheeks and turning our fingertips numb, we cheerfully pulled the kids in a sled up and down the outdoor aisles of a nearby tree farm every December, arguing and debating which one was our “perfect” tree.

Some wanted the tall, bushy ones, some always wanted the poor, thin, straggly ones nobody else would ever buy, and some just wanted to collect as many fallen branches as possible off the ground to “plant” in the backyard.

There were a lot of laughs, and some icy tears, trying to tie those trees and branches onto our tiny plastic sled, and then onto the top of our car for the highway drive home, but it was nothing that some hot chocolate and a horse-drawn sleigh ride couldn’t always fix.

Last year, during our first-ever Christmas in Thunder Bay, when we learned we could just walk into the woods and pick our own wild tree to take home, we willingly embraced this new twist on our Christmas tree tradition.

The tree we finally agreed on was a bit lopsided, and pretty sparse, but what branches it had were strong enough to hold our now 3-boxes-big collection of store-bought, handmade and lovingly gifted decorations. That little tree filled our house with the most amazing pine-fresh scent, and it melted the last of my Scrooge-like attitude towards holiday decorating with its warm and twinkly welcome home in the dark December nights.

With the sudden arrival of winter here via a fierce 2-day ice and snowstorm, we reluctantly hauled out the snow pants and boots, the shovels and the sleds, and gave into to the season that is finally upon us. On the bright side, that also meant planning for our Christmas tree hunt next weekend. Everyone is on board, even me: it’s our family tradition, and I wouldn’t dream of missing out.