The family "cut--your-own" Christmas tree excursion was usually held a few Saturdays before Christmas. We would all meet early morning at my father's house in southeast Bakersfield. Although my dad, Larry, has been gone for many years now, my memory of seeing him waiting for us in his worn-out lawn chair on his tiny Watts Drive front porch is still quite vivid. He would be wearing his brown plaid jacket, brown gloves, gray sweats, untied tennis shoes, socks that didn't match and his navy beany cap pulled over his ears.
His intimidating Marine Corps frown would slowly grow to become a smile as each car and truck filled with his grandchildren, sons and daughters pulled in front of his home. Each grandchild would run to grandpa, surround him and wait for their turn at a hug and kiss on his cold cheeks. By then, his frown had melted away to be replaced by the glow of a proud grandpa.
My brothers, sisters and family friends planned all week for our annual Christmas tree cutting excursion. My wife, Susie, would make the hot chocolate for all the young children. Someone would bring the freshly made breakfast burritos. Doughnuts and Mexican sweet bread would be shared. And even though it was usually near freezing, you could count on an ice chest filled with cold beverages.
A conservative estimate would be about 20 to 25 family members and friends joining us each year for our fun caravan of cars and trucks to Clendenen's Christmas Tree Farm in Lamont. We loved Clendenen's. One year we cut 15 Christmas trees to take to our homes.
The best seat for the 15-minute ride from my dad's house to Lamont was in the back of my converted green van. Long before seatbelt requirements, we safely huddled many of my young nephews and nieces into the back of our van.
There were two requirements to ride with Uncle Steve and Aunt Susie. You had to behave and you had to sing along to the "Christmas with the Chipmunks" tape we played each year on our ride to Clendenen's. Wrapped in their blankets, with warm chocolate in hand and rosy cheeks, they would all sing along with Chipmunks Alvin, Simon and Theodore.
My daughters, nephews and nieces are now grown adults but quietly sing these words from the Chipmunk's "Christmas Song"..."me...I want a hula hoop" into their ears and watch their eyes roll back and wait for Christmas tree hunting stories to begin.
I asked my now-grown daughters what memories they have of our annual trips to Lamont. Nikki was 6 and Brenna was 5 when the tradition started 30 years ago. They answered separately but their response was identical. "I remember how much fun it was to be with my family," they both said. They began to recount stories of playing hide-and-go-seek in the groves of trees, looking for nests with eggs hidden in the branches, playing tag and the fun of being allowed to get dirty with their parents, aunts and uncles.
Retirements, changing business conditions and even fires have caused many such choose-and-cut farms to close here in Kern County.
Once Clendenen's closed, our annual holiday outing sadly stopped. It would have been like cheating on a family tradition if we went elsewhere for our tree.
My seven brothers and sisters' families have each grown, each one now with their own Christmas tree hunting tradition. I suspect they are like me. When my family brings our Christmas tree into our home, we reminisce of long ago Christmas tree hunting trips and cherish memories of breakfast burritos, hot chocolate and singing Chipmunks.
My special Christmas tree hunting memory will always be seeing our children, nephews and nieces, surrounding grandpa on his front porch waiting their turn for a hug and a kiss and turning that sometimes grumpy old Marine into the smiling, loving, caring father and grandpa that would be his legacy. Now...that was a Christmas present.
Happy Christmas tree hunting and happy holidays from the Flores family.
-- Steve Flores is a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are his opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.