Growing up on a Tualatin Christmas tree farm

Left to right- my dad, John; sister Molly riding Honkey the Donkey; me in the center inexplicably holding a duck; Mom, Annette, with sister Sally and Jake the Dog. Courtesy photo/Natalie O’Neill
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In grade school, it was my self-appointed chore to don a pointy red cap and hand out candy canes on weekends in December. With my flame-colored hair and nerdy enthusiasm, I  must have looked like an elf who escaped Santa’s workshop. 

I grew up on a Christmas tree farm here in Tualatin. For most of the year, it felt like an island where the firs far outnumbered the people.  In the winter, though, folks would come knocking, and my sisters and I would bolt to the door. It was a blast until puberty struck and I learned I was tragically uncool. 

My parents, who are a funny breed of hippie-hick, bought the six-acre patch of land in 1987 for a steal. It came with a century-old farmhouse and a field of Douglas firs in an unincorporated area not far from Wanker’s Corner Country Store. 

The farm was a labor of love for my mom, who had a restless green thumb. The first year, she charged $5 per tree — a bargain even in the 80s.

She soon planted hundreds of Noble firs, which have heartier branches for holding ornaments, and sold them for $5 a foot. Most were healthy six-footers but in our neck of the woods, the hustle was like selling snow on Mount Everest.

Later, she hand-painted a sandwich board “U Cut” sign, meaning if you wanted a tree she’d hand you a saw. In the spring, she spent hours shearing the trees into tidy green cones. I remember her drenched in rain and gripping a machete like the bad guy in a horror flick.

On each fir, she’d tie the top branch to a stick so it would grow straight up to the sky, and eventually into a perch for a star or an angel. 

Families around town made trips to our farm as part of their holiday tradition. My dad would help people haul trees to their cars and tie them on top. Suburban kids got a kick out of our animals, which we raised for fun, not to eat.

We had one of each barnyard pet, like a dysfunctional  Noah’s Ark. There was Honkey the Donkey, Billy the Goat, and Packwood the Pig – a bloated porker my mom named after former Oregon senator Bob Packwood, who she called “a male chauvinist pig.”

One year, we rounded up the whole family and the animals to snap a photo for a Christmas card. Our dog, Jake, spooked Honkey and he bucked me and my sister off. I landed in the mud and she landed on top of me. It was chaos.

Christmas time was sacred around the farm, not that my parents were religious. They had fun keeping our belief in Santa Claus alive longer than most kids. I was a true believer into middle school thanks to their antics and explanations. 

When I found a Fred Meyer sticker on a gift, they simply explained that the elves were on strike that year. I bought it.

When I penned a note to Kris Kringle on Christmas Eve, demanding that he leave one of Rudolph’s bells as proof that he was “really real,” I found a shiny silver one waiting the next morning.

Another year – apparently just for creative flare – my dad got a stocking full of coal after he’d spent much of December singing an off-key song he made up about Santa’s obesity. 

As I got older, the trees were in the background of so many big-seeming moments. When my first boyfriend visited the farm, we strolled through the firs arm-in-arm.  The first time I swiped beer from my parents, I ducked behind a Blue Spruce to guzzle it. I slept in a camper with friends by the field the week I left for college.

Eventually, I moved far away – to Boston, San Francisco, Miami, and then New York City – where trees like my mom’s sold for hundreds of dollars.  In those cities, my friends thought growing up on a Christmas tree farm was weirdly magical, akin to coming of age at the North Pole.

When I was young, though, I mostly thought living there was embarrassing. I was self-conscious and didn’t want my cul-de-sac-living pals to think I was a clueless country bumpkin.

It took 20 years in concrete jungles to fully appreciate the farm, where my mom now sells the trees wholesale. Recent triple-digit heatwaves have zapped hundreds of her seedlings into dry brown shrubs, but it hasn’t stopped her.

In early October, a day before I was due to give birth for the first time, I was eating dinner at the farm when I felt the zing of a mild contraction. To relieve the tension, I went for a waddle through the trees.

That familiar piney smell – a whiff of Christmastime  – was comforting, like main-lining nostalgia. With any luck, I thought, my son Leo would be a Christmas nerd, too.

As a grown-up now living in Portland, I finally see the perks of the farm again. For one, the open space and fresh air will be good for my little boy. My beer-drinking family can be as loud as we want on holidays; there’s nobody around for miles. And, not to brag, but the Christmas tree that lights up my family’s old farmhouse is the best in town.

After all, we get first pick. 

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