It was one of those cold, still winter days when the sun shone steadfastly but never brightly, as if it were always four o'clock in the afternoon -- a perfect day for the ritual of cutting down the Christmas tree. Determined not to break the silence or foul the air with a chain saw, we were equipped only with axes and hand-saws, some stray lengths of rope, a Thermos of soup and a bag of doughnuts bought at an Arlington bakery. In a convoy of two cars, each filled with assorted members of two families, we headed out the interstates and onto the more congenial state highways, across the rivers and into the foothills. Our destination: a tract of mountain land somewhere beyond Charlottesville, which our friends owned but rarely visited. While deciding what, if anything, to do with the property, they'd had some trees planted on it -- Scotch pines, which ought to be just right for cutting this Christmas. We had a family tradition of cutting our own Christmas tree, begun in the wild Sixties quite illicitly at a logging camp in California and continued, in the more staid Seventies, on my in-laws' property in Pennsylvania, where someone had once started a Christmas tree farm and abandoned it. For several years we harvested the feral blue spruces, which always reached our ten-foot ceilings. When my in-laws retired to Florida we got lazy and bought our ten-foot blue spruces already cut and at exorbitant prices. Our friends were giving us the chance to renew the tradition and to spend a day in the country and we jumped at it, knowing full well that the tree itself might not be as perfect as our trees of the past. Passing through Charlottesville with nary a nod to Mr. Jefferson, we continued west and south and up, following maps and our friends' sketchy recollections of just where the place was. Finding the right dirt road with surprising ease, we stirred up dust for several miles before we reached the tenant farmer's cottage for the obligatory presentation of a bottle of bourbon. Our bona fides thus established, we set out on foot to find the trees of honor. The planted Christmas trees, we decided quickly, needed another year or so to grow. We turned instead to the woods, which were filled with wild pines and towering cedars. Fording streams and wading through half-frozen marshes and untangling children from wild gorse, we searched while the sun paled and finally faded. Unwilling to be lost in the woods like Hansel and Gretel, we caucused in family groups and made final selections. Ours was a cedar, a species we had never considered before but a tree that would definitely touch the ceiling. Happy that we had at least made a decision, we had chopped it down and dragged it to the car. As we stopped to fill up at a country gas station, we calculated that the cost of the tree was actually greater than a nursery-purchased, picture- perfect blue spruce. But when a Santa Claus burst out of the general store attached to the gas station with a candy cane for each of the children, we knew we had done the right thing. And when we got the tree up at home, we were sure of it. It filled the room and it filled the house with the wonderful scent of cedar. Our friends' property is off-limits, but here are some places where you can choose and cut your own Christmas tree:
CIDER AND GiNGER TREE FARM, about 5 miles west of Poolesville. Open daily 6 to 6. Scotch pine, 3 to 7 feet, $11 including tax. Bring your own saw. Directions: From I-270, take Route 28 west exit and continue 14 miles to the stoplight. Turn left onto Route 109 to Poolesville, then turn right on Route 107. Continue four miles to Elmer School Road. Turn left for one mile until sign. 301/349-5693.
WILLIAM H. TANNER, about 20 miles southeast of Washington in Prince George's County. Open weekends only, 9 until dark. Scotch pine and Norway spruce, 4 to 7 feet, $15 to 18. Directions: From the Beltway take Route 5 south eight miles. Turn left on Route 381. Continue eight miles and turn left on Baden-Westwood Road. Continue about 3/4 mile to sign. 301/579-2238.
MELWOOD FARM, 10200 Marlboro Pike, Upper Marlboro. Open daily during daylight hours. Natural growth Maryland pines and cedar to 35 feet at $1 per foot. Bring your own saw. Directions: From Beltway exit 11A take Pennsylvania Avenue east through two stoplights. Before third light, veer right into exit lane which will take you through the light and onto Marlboro Pike. Farm is one mile on left. Watch for white brick pillars. Phone: 599-9446.
MASQUE FARM, about a mile southwest of Annapolis. Open weekends only 9 to 4. Scotch pine, white pine, Norway spruce, 3 to 5 feet, $16. From U.S. 50 take Route 2 south 1/2 mile. Turn left on Forest Drive (Route 665). Continue about a mile and a half and turn right on Spa Road (Route 387). Farm is 1/4 mile down the road on your right. 301/757- 4454. No calls on weekends, please.
ELMWOOD FARM: About 2 miles south of Dunkirk in Calvert County. Open December 11 through 22, weekdays and Saturdays 1 to 5, Sundays 2 to 5. Scotch pine, 3 to 8 feet, $10 and $15. Bring your own saw. From the Beltway, take Route 4 south 22 miles. Turn left on Mt. Harmony Road to the sign on your right. 301/586-2292.
HARDEE FARMS, about 4 miles northeast of Woodsboro in Frederick County. Open through December 24, 9:30 to 4. Scotch pine, 4 to 10 feet,$11 including tax. Bring your own saw. From I-270 take Route 15 north around Frederick. Turn right on Liberty Road (Route 26) and continue 2 miles. Turn left on Woodsboro Pike (Route 194) through Woodsboro to New Midway. Turn right on Renner Road two miles to sign. 301/384-6576 or 384-9455.
JAMES THOMAS, 1629 Beulah Road, Vienna. Open December 12, 13, 19 and 20, 9 to 5. Scotch, white and Virginia pine, 4 to 7 feet, $2.50 per foot. Bring your own saw. From Tysons Corner go west on Route 7 about three miles. Turn left on Beulah Road past Dulles access road to second drive on left. 938-0562.
YULE LOG CHRISTMAS TREE FARM, near Marshall. Open weekends 9 to 5. Norway spruce, Scotch, Virginia and white pine 5 to 7 feet; blue spruce 4 to 6 feet. All available for cutting; all except Scotch or Virginia pine also available for digging. Cut trees $11, dug trees $16. Saws, twine and burlap provided. $1 charge for use of spade. Take 1-66 to second Marshall exit. Follow Route 647 12 miles west to Route 637 and turn right. Farm is the log house on the hill about two miles down the road. 703/364-2811.
DANNY-DAYLE PLANTATION, Winchester. Open weekends. Scotch pine, spruce and fir, 3 to 7 feet. Saws, wrap and twine available. From Route 7 east of Winchester go north on Route 656 half a mile. Turn left on Route 661, 1 mile to plantation. 703/662-9026.
PINEHILL CHRISTMAS TREE FARM, Winchester. 9 to 5 daily. Scotch pine 4 to 8 feet, white pine 4 to 6 feet, $9.50 including tax and baling. Saws, wrap and twine available. About 5 miles west of Winchester on U.S. 50. Turn onto private dirt road 100 yards past intersection with Route 608. Follow red arrows. 703/877-1643.
PINETOP TREE FARM, Gore (near Winchester). Open 9 until dark, Tuesday through Sunday. White pine, $12 to 15. From Winchester, take U.S. 50 west to Gore. Turn south on Route 704 (Back Creek Road). After 61/2 miles turn right on Route 617 to white house on top of ridge. 703/858-3381.
SCUTTLEBUTT CHRISTMAS TREE FARM, Winchester. Open daylight hours Thursday through Sunday. Scotch and white pine, $2 to $2.50 per foot. Saws available. From Winchester, take Route 522 north to Gainesboro. Turn right on Route 600 to Route 689. Turn left about two miles to farm. 703/888-3442.
WALNUT RIDGE FARM NURSERY, Clear Brook. 9 to 5, Friday through Sunday. Scotch pine to 10 feet, white pine to 8 feet, $14. Saws provided. From Winchester, take I-81 north to exit 84. Turn right to Route 11 and left on Sam Mason Road. Follow signs to farm. 703/667-9537.
LOUDOUN NURSERY, Hamilton. 9 to 5, Thursday through Sunday. Scotch pine to 10 feet, white pine to 12 feet, $3 per foot to $25 maximum. Saws and baling available. About 1/2 mile east of Gilberts Corner turn north on Route 860 to farm on right. 703/882-3450.
CHESTNUT HILLS FARM, Amissville. 9 to 5 daily. Scotch and white pine 6 to 8 feet, priced according to size. From Warrenton take Route 211 to one mile west of Amissvile. Turn left on Route 611 300 yards to farm on right. 703/937- 5461.
PARSON CHRISTMAS TREE FARM, Washington. 9 to 5, December 19 and 20 only. Douglas fir, 5 to 15 feet, $3 per foot with a $15 minimum. Special prices for trees over 9 feet. Saws and twine available. Follow Route 211 23 miles past Warrenton. In Washington, follow signs. 703/675-3523.
QUAIL CALL FARM, Amissville. 8 to 5 daily. Scotch and white pine, $1.50 per foot plus $1. Fraser fir and Colorado blue spruce, $3 per foot. Take U.S. 211 11 miles past Warrenton. Turn left at post office and go 21/2 miles on Route 642 to sign. 703/937-4696.
SKYLINE EVERGREEN FARM, near Front Royal. Open daylight hours until December 21. Scotch and white pine, 5 to 15 feet, $9.90 to $27; Norway and white spruce 5 to 15 feet, $17.80 to $27. Saws available. From Front Royal take Route 340 south 10 miles to Bentonville, then Route 613 east two miles to farm.
ASH LAWN, Charlottesville. 10 to 4, December 12, 13, 19, 20. Visitors may cut natural-growth cedars, from table-top size to 12 feet or more, from the fields surrounding the James Monroe home. A tax-deductible donation is requested for each tree. In the past most donations were between $5 and $15. Ash Lawn is 21/2 miles beyond Monticello on Route 795. 804/293-9539.