It happened by accident, really. Like a lot of good things in life, we weren’t looking for it. But then, there it was—unmistakably, imperfectly perfect.

My older son spied it first and suggested, “Why don’t we try to get a discount on this ugly tree?”

This poor, forlorn tree with branches akimbo, standing among the rows of carefully sculpted specimens, had either been overlooked or deemed unredeemable. Upside down really, the large boughs shaded the smaller ones beneath. And singular in its awesomeness, we couldn’t resist—so we chopped it down (despite squints from the other tree scouts), hauled it up and tied it down on top of the car. We did not get a discount.

Shaking out the extra needles in the driveway, we could see even more clearly the oddity we had brought home. Neighbors were curious…

We giggled as we set up our perfectly imperfect tree in the living room window and strung it with lights. As we adorned the tree with our family’s collection of holiday decorations—gifted, bought and made over the years—we started to see the beauty in this tree’s uniqueness. Rather than laying on branches and weighing them down, the ornaments hung and swung freely, unobscured and able to be appreciated all the more for the strands of lights that shone from every angle.

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Anne-Marie Gambelin

We crown each tree with the foil star I made the first year we were married and didn’t have enough money for a real topper. Every time it goes up, I can’t help but feel so grateful for everything and everyone that has happened ever since.

Our living room window is large enough to give more than a hint of the strangeness inside. Now our neighbors look for it. People walk by and take pictures of it. This one was top-heavy. One year it was just half a tree that we backed up bald and decorated against the window as it sprawled in a half-moon across the room. One year was the skinny tree. Then there was the year of the flying saucer…

It’s become a thing.

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Anne-Marie Gambelin

Each family has its own traditions, either inherited or established. We acquired this one late, when the kids could run around the farm in constant contact via their cell phones, sending pictures to each other until the best worst tree is found. Sometimes this race to find it takes 5 minutes—sometimes a whole hour (both say something about our local selections). In any case, it’s the most fun we’ve had picking a tree, so it’s become our tradition every year.

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Anne-Marie Gambelin

The ugly Christmas tree sums up who we are as a family. It’s never the same each year—neither are we. It looks different and has different qualities to be admired every year—so do we. But the best part is how the magic of this tree surprised, delighted and provided a totally different perspective on what a Christmas tree could look like. And, as in life, we can look at what is not perfect, turn it upside down, and somehow find the beauty.

Who knew. This family tradition is our favorite.

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Anne-Marie Gambelin

A version of this post was published December 3, 2020. It has been updated.