The Christmas season has always been my favorite. Raised on a “Century Farm” in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, some of my all-time special memories occurred during this magical time of the year. Even though I am now grown, so many of those early childhood experiences remain with me today.

To me, Christmas means gathering with family, enjoying delicious foods, searching for the perfect Christmas tree and of course celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. When I was young, pick-your-own Christmas tree farms didn’t exist, so my grandfather and I would go searching on our farm for the perfect cedar to cut down. Looking back, I must admit that those wild growing trees were not perfectly shaped or manicured. In fact, most of the time they were pretty ragged, but that didn’t matter.

Even though the trees were imperfect, I will never forget the smell of a freshly cut cedar tree standing in our living room. My parents would get out the decorations and my sister and I would have the best time decorating. I still remember those colorful strands of lights draped throughout the tree. We would take turns getting the ornaments out of the box and reminiscing while hanging them on the branches.

When I got married, my late wife Andrea and I began our own tradition of going to a local pick-your-own Christmas tree farm. Each year, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we would search for the perfect tree. As our children came along, they too joined in the fun. I can still remember them scattering throughout the fields looking for a tree. The handsaw was usually dull and required some effort, but what amazing memories we made. Even though my children are now grown, we still make this an annual tradition.

Another special Christmas tradition that continues is the spread of homegrown food. When I was young, our extended family would gather at my grandparents’ house on Christmas eve. As a small child the presents were the highlight, but as I grew older the amazing homegrown food became my favorite. My grandparents and parents both loved a big garden and spent countless hours each summer canning and freezing the plentiful harvest. I can still remember the taste of my grandmother’s green beans, corn, hash brown casserole, beets and deviled eggs. Every item was raised on the farm and processed in her basement.

That same tradition continues today. Although it is a lot of work canning and freezing vegetables throughout the busy summer months, there’s nothing better than enjoying the fruits of that labor every holiday season. I am hopeful my children will continue that same tradition of growing and processing foods grown in their gardens.

Finally, for me, Christmas truly is about the Christmas story. I will never forget the nativity scenes I saw as a child and hearing the incredible story of the birth of Jesus. I was blessed to be raised in a family that celebrated the true meaning of Christmas, and I’m proud to pass that tradition along to my children and grandchildren.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and are able to share your special family traditions as well.

Matt Lohr, former chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a Farm Bureau member and fifth-generation farmer in Virginia. He’s also a graduate of the organization’s Partners in Advocacy Leadership program.