Early on Black Friday morning, my family embarks on our annual pilgrimage to the woods, not the malls. Dressed in our oldest cold-weather clothes and boots, we wedge ourselves into the car with our kids, our dog, my parents, and an occasional girlfriend or boyfriend. Carols pour out of the radio as we meander through Washtenaw County’s back roads in search of the Perfect Tree.

Hats? Check. Gloves? Check. Hot chocolate? Muffins? Saw? Check. Check. Check.

We’re following a tradition that my family began in Maine generations ago, and we prepare carefully. The quest begins early Friday, but no one loiters or groans about their wake-up call. We are connoisseurs of fine trees–and we live in an area rich in farms that grow majestic spruce, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, and pines, so we have plenty to choose from. They’re found in the most beautiful and obscure nooks and crannies in Washtenaw and surrounding counties, so patience, maps, directions, and a GPS with a strong signal are highly recommended.

As soon as we pull into the parking lot of the first tree farm, my husband, Mark, heads straight for the farthest corner of the farm, Daniel Boone style, eyes fixed on the horizon. The kids, despite the fact that they are now grown-up professionals, scatter, racing the dog, shooting snowballs (if the weather cooperates), and pursuing dead-end trails, convinced they will find the Perfect Tree at the end of each one.

Height is the first consideration for Ben; he doesn’t want an inch to go to waste between the star on our tree and our twelve-foot ceiling. Chip is the quality control expert: he inspects for arrow-straight trunks and for fullness, making certain that no angle reveals a glimpse of the trunk or dry needles. Elizabeth, the artist in the family, focuses on symmetry. And all four considerations–height, fullness, trunk, and symmetry–must find unanimous approval before the lumberjack work begins. We’ve sometimes visited up to three farms before everyone was satisfied.

When the Perfect Tree is discovered, the boys lie under the lowest branches and the sawing begins, while Elizabeth and I gather boughs we’ll use for decorations. If we’re lucky, we may even find a tractor- or horse-drawn wagon that can carry the tree for us.

We toast our success with hot chocolate and snacks as the farm staff wraps the tree in twine. Then we attach the evergreen mummy to the roof of the car and fondly recall the unfortunate day Mom drove into the garage with the tree still tied to the roof. The trip home is spent reminiscing and singing carols at the top of our lungs.

“But you can find gorgeous trees in the stand down the road,” neighbors point out annually.

We offer excuses like “fresh cut,” “support local farmers,” and “homegrown,” but really, our outings offer much more profound benefits. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t realize the importance of this ordinary ritual until Ben, at age six, told friends that the day after Thanksgiving was his favorite day of the year.

Free of cell phones and outside distractions, on this one day we take the time to admire Wash-tenaw’s rolling hills, golden fields, trees sporting autumn’s last blazing colors, ancient farmhouses, and picturesque barns–sights that too often go unnoticed or underappreciated the other 364 days of busy years. And we take the time to cherish togetherness. Chip now lives in Utah, Ben in Philadelphia, Elizabeth in Chicago, and the grandparents in Maine, so every day together is a special day, one we don’t take for granted. And our tree-cutting tradition links us to ancestors who came and went long before we made our appearances. As I watch my husband and children stretched under the Perfect Tree, taking turns with the saw, I realize yet again that family is the best gift I’ll ever find under a tree.