This story is part of "Mornings in Michigan," our series about morning rituals from across our state.
COVID-19 has forced many people to set aside holiday traditions this year. But in the small community of Chelsea, near Ann Arbor, one popular Christmas ritual hasn’t slowed down at all.
This time of year, lots of cars pull off a dirt road here and head for a big red barn.
Jack Urquhart wears a mask as he greets cars pulling up to the entrance to Urquhart Christmas Tree Farm. One customer jokingly asks if they have saws and trees. Urquhart assures them they do, and he points the driver to a large grass parking lot next to massive fields filled with rows and rows of evergreen trees.
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The farm sits on more than 350 acres. The Urquhart family converted a struggling dairy operation into a Christmas tree farm in the 1980s. They sold their first trees in 1990.
In the years since, cutting your own tree here has become an annual family tradition for customers like Maria Contreras, who works in healthcare.
“We’ve done this since I was a little kid with the whole family always coming and cutting down a tree, so being able to do this now, especially in such a hectic climate … to still come and do these Christmas traditions, it really means a lot,” she says.
Coming to an outdoor business on several hundred acres is a pretty safe activity. Jack Urquhart’s grandparents own this farm, and he’s worked here part-time around Christmas since he was 8. This year, he says, they made some changes because of COVID.
“We’ve had to rearrange how we have customers move through the property,” he says. “We opened up a couple other [fields] people can drive to and just stay outside. We also moved our gift shop outside, but besides having to hire more staff to manage it, it’s really kind of been pretty similar.”
In a normal year, part of the fun is taking a hayride with other groups to find a tree in far-off fields. This year, the tractors are only taking one family at a time.
At the main part of the farm, most families pick up their saws, and tree wagons and take a short walk to pick out a tree.
Scott Arizala is here with his wife and three kids. They come every year.
“You know, anything that we can do that has that sense of normalcy feels great. So, to be able to come out here and feel quite normal to be able to do our thing out here is important,” he says.
And part of that normalcy includes the annual tree selection process.
“It’s always about what it looks like. It’s never about the kind, so we always look for the perfect tree. In fact we were all just having the conversation about what that means,” Arizala says. “Everyone has a slightly different idea, so we have compromise. We’ll have to go out and figure it out, so we’re looking for probably a six or seven footer, and nice and round and fat.”
Customer Jory Tracy doesn’t live with his parents anymore, so they haven’t been able to spend much time in person during the pandemic. They celebrated Thanksgiving this year sitting and eating in separate cars in the driveway and talking over Zoom, so coming to the farm together means a lot.
“I think it’s good for all of our mental health, for sure. We’ve been in our own separate houses for so long and not be able to hang out together, so that’s been really nice,” he says.
Possibly because the business is outside, the Urquharts have seen an increase in sales. In a typical year, they sell about 2,300 trees. This year, they’re on pace to sell around 3,000.
Tracy’s family picked a 14-foot Fraser fir. It takes several employees to put the tree on top of a mechanical shaker that removes loose needles and pine cones. Then it goes through an electric baler before getting tied down to the car.
After more than a decade growing on the farm, that tree is off to the family room to get decked out in lights and ornaments ready for a Christmas morning unlike any other.