Sunday, December 23, 2012
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Roanoke family agrees: A late tree is worth the wait

At Hamill Christmas Tree Farm, few have held off as long as the Levines.

Uri Levine (center) drags a freshly cut white pine to his car with the help of daughters Channa (left), 6, and Tova, 2. Saturday at Hamill Christmas Tree Farm. Uri and his wife, Rachel (far left), have a tradition of cutting their own tree.

Photos by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Uri Levine (center) drags a freshly cut white pine to his car with the help of daughters Channa (left), 6, and Tova, 2. Saturday at Hamill Christmas Tree Farm. Uri and his wife, Rachel (far left), have a tradition of cutting their own tree.

John Hamill carries a tree for the Levine family.

John Hamill carries a tree for the Levine family. "Sometimes it's their tradition to come late," Hamill said of latecomers.

Tova Levine, who was bundled up for the outing, looks for a Christmas tree with her family on Saturday.

Tova Levine, who was bundled up for the outing, looks for a Christmas tree with her family on Saturday.

Uri Levine pays John Hamill (left) for a white pine Christmas tree.

Uri Levine pays John Hamill (left) for a white pine Christmas tree.

Saws wait for customers at Hamill Christmas Tree Farm in Roanoke.

Saws wait for customers at Hamill Christmas Tree Farm in Roanoke.

Christmas tree shopping is not an exact science, especially not this deep into December, when many families have long found and decorated their own.

For some, finding one so late in December might be indicative of a crammed schedule, or perhaps an unforeseen conflict in timing. But for the Levine family, who pulled into the Hamill Christmas Tree Farm parking lot late Saturday morning, the exercise of finding a tree at the tail-end of the season has become a family tradition.

As it happened, they were the first customers of the day.

An exuberant 6-year-old girl, Channa, opened her car door and slid out of the back seat. She grinned and clapped her hands. Behind her, spread across a hill, more than a thousand trees stood waiting in the sunlight. There were Fraser and Canaan firs, white pine, Scotch pine, and sundry spruces. A nippy breeze rushed a quarter of a mile across the farm and into the gravel lot, splashing the senses with that familiar smell. Christmas.

Uri and Rachel Levine stepped out of the car, 2-year-old Tova in tow. The farm's proprietor, John Hamill, emerged from his brick house and greeted the family of four. He handed Uri Levine a small saw. The two men pointed to a patch of trees at the base of the hill. Uri Levine nodded, then signaled to the others. Hamill went back inside.

As they made their way across the field, Channa skipped next to her sister before charging to the front of the group. Tova, who toddled along in warm winter gear and high white socks, stuck close to her mother.

"We didn't want to drive all the way down to Floyd, but we love the tradition of cutting down the tree," Uri Levine said. "And we like waiting, otherwise it feels like you're celebrating Christmas too long."

And particularly for the Levine family, all Episcopalians in the midst of Advent, the season has already been a celebration of preparation and patience.

They stepped into a plot of bushy trees, winding around tall pines, mindful of the naked stumps from where others had come earlier in the month.

The 9-acre Hamill farm sits along King Street in northeast Roanoke, the only choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm within city limits. Hamill said business so far has been good, though it always tapers as the December progresses. On Friday, only three or four people bought trees.

"Sometimes it's their tradition to come late," he said. "And sometimes things just happen."

John Hamill's father, Willard Hamill, started growing the trees as a hobby on a farm in Bedford County in 1963. It became a business shortly thereafter, pushed to a healthy start with the help of the Virginia Department of Forestry, which sold Willard Hamill 1,000 trees for 10 cents apiece. MeadWestvaco sweetened the deal by offering to pay for half of that cost.

The business slowly grew, a good fit for Willard Hamill, who has always held a fascination for forestry, but worked as an investment broker to keep a steady income. His son followed in his footsteps. They moved to Roanoke in the 1980s, where they've grown in their current location since.

With the exception of droughts, business has held firm, John Hamill said.

"This year has been better than last year, and last year was good," he said. "It seems like the economy hasn't hurt tree sales."

The father-son team can see their farm from the living room window, long, neat rows of trees in myriad shapes and sizes. Some are tall; some are stocky. Others are still saplings, with several years left to grow.

For the Levine family, finding the right tree is an exercise in careful examination.

"We don't want it to be too perfect," Rachel Levine said. "We want gaps so the ornaments can hang down."

Her husband grabbed the top of a stout pine and shook it, the unspoken universal test for determining a good tree from a bad one.

"What do you think of this one?" he asked.

"Well, it's nice and full," Rachel Levine said, surveying their find. "Sure, why not?"

Uri Levine started sawing. Then, with the help of his daughters, he lugged the tree back to the house, where it was roped and loaded into the trunk of the family car.

A check was written and Uri Levine shook John Hamill's hand. The rest of the day — just three until Christmas — would be for hanging ornaments.

Channa danced wobbly pirouettes nearby, unable anymore to contain her excitement.

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