When my family moved back to the United States after living in Switzerland for almost a decade, I couldn’t wait to relive my American childhood through my Swiss-born daughter. Number one on my list for the holiday season was to pack my family, my camera, and some old memories into a car, and drive 27 miles to a Christmas tree farm in a far western Chicago suburb to cut down our tree.

“Where do I park?” my husband, Brian, wanted to know upon our arrival at the farm.

I looked at the big parking lot and the unfamiliar building next to it and wondered where my childhood was. But GPS assured me that it was here.

We asked someone who knew more about my childhood tradition of cutting down a Christmas tree than I did and were directed to a muddier parking lot with a big line of cars waiting to get into it.

Brian sighed, tightening his scarf, and my chest tightened too. I don’t know what I expected, except that my memories were telling me to look for a fairy tale forest filled with pine trees. Back in reality, I was an adult sitting in traffic at a farm that shouldn’t have traffic and I didn’t know my lines.

“Let’s go to the barn,” I said, once we parked, figuring the barn would have a map of the tree farm and a saw. Inside, however, there were no saws or tree maps. Instead, there were free doughnuts and free hot chocolate and the opportunity to take an overpriced picture of my daughter with Santa by someone who had never studied photography.

“Let’s go,” I said, clutching our horrible picture, in which neither my daughter nor Santa were looking at the camera. We left the barn. I was ready to wander in the woods and put the commercialism behind me. Instead I found myself in front of a lot of pre-cut trees. I sighed while my daughter danced around the Fraser firs, which were priced by the foot. Again, we found someone who knew more than I did and learned that the tree-cutting fields weren’t within toddler walking distance.

Reluctantly, we got into the car.

“Where do you want me to go?” Brian asked, like I had an entire map of the farm in my head instead of an unfulfilled wish.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I like the shorter pines. Maybe a field with those?”

Finally, we pulled into another lot. That’s when the car got stuck in the mud. That’s when I lifted my daughter out of her car seat and realized her shoes were caked in sludge and now my jacket was too. That’s when I saw how far we’d have to walk in the muck to begin our search for a long-needled pine. And that’s when the fairy tale in my head officially ended. No matter how much I wanted to relive my childhood through my daughter, I couldn’t. Traditions can’t be put in a box and taken out at a later date with a different set of actors. It was not the 1980s and I was not meant to live my parents’ life — even if I was finally in the vicinity of where it was spent.

“Let’s go home,” I said.

“I just want to do what you want to do,” Brian said.

“Now I see that this isn’t it,” I replied, feeling horrible for wasting gas money, toll money, and an entire sunny morning.

On our treeless ride home my daughter sang “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

“Say hooray!” my daughter prompted.

“Hooray,” I said, but my heart didn’t hooray with my words.

If we couldn’t have my childhood tradition and we couldn’t have our Swiss tradition (bringing a Christmas tree from the hardware store home on a public bus), what tradition did we have?

“Do you want me to stop at the YMCA?” Brian asked, as we approached the YMCA tree sale a few blocks from our house.

“I guess.” I still wanted a tree — even if old traditions weren’t going to come with it.

We got out of the car and the smell of pine filled the air. My daughter ran to a huge tree that was leaning against the concrete wall. “I want the big one!”

My husband held it up for us to see. It towered over us, throwing a shadow across my face.

“It’s too big,” I said.

My husband took out his tape measure. 8 feet, 2 inches. “No, it should fit.”

I shook my head. This tree was not what I was looking for — not that I knew anymore what I was looking for. My daughter skipped around and Brian held up other trees, which I pretended to contemplate and compare. Finally, I let my daughter decide. She chose the big one.

That evening, we decorated the tree, hanging ornaments from various stages of our lives on it, until each small adornment became part of something larger, something uniquely ours. As my daughter hung a third ornament on the same sagging branch, I walked over to direct her otherwise. But then I saw that in front of the Swiss snowflake and the Chicago cardinal, she had hung an old Strawberry Shortcake ornament from my childhood.

“It’s so pretty!” My daughter clapped. The tree glowed at her applause, its lights throwing colored sparkles on the living room windows as I reflected: Yes, new family traditions — even in old, (not-so) familiar places — could be beautiful too.

Chantal Panozzo is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known.

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