SOLON– It’s a crisp winter morning, with a light dusting of snow on the ground, and hooting and hollering and laughter can be heard echoing through the surrounding trees. A friendly game of football ensues while spectators sip hot chocolate and munch popcorn with mittens on. Older kids dog pile on the first man to go down, and little voices shout out that it’s time to ride the train.
The jovial commotion is coming from the Sueppel family’s makeshift tailgating camp, set up for just one morning at Handley’s Holiday Hillside Christmas tree farm east of Solon.
The sights and sounds will be familiar to anyone who makes their seasonal trip to Handley’s Tree Farm on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
After all, the Sueppels have returned to Handley’s on the same day every year since about 1978.
Sometime in the late 70s– the exact year is hard to pinpoint because it seems like forever– Paul and Judy Sueppel of Iowa City began bringing their five children to Handley’s to pick out a Christmas tree on the day after Thanksgiving. There, they would meet up with Judy’s sister and brother-in-law, Janet and Fred Pilcher and their three children, who drove from Cedar Rapids. Handley’s was a convenient halfway point for both families. The meet-up between the two families became an annual event.
As the children grew and began having families of their own, the Sueppel siblings held fast to what had become their childhood tradition, adding a few random guests from time to time and introducing their own kids to the holiday kickoff ritual.
“Each year we have somewhere around 30 people that come out together,” said Kirsten Hanrahan, one of the Sueppel children. “There are always lots of little kids, and usually a few extras who want to get in on the action.”
The action is more than just coming to pick out a tree, although that is the first order of business.
“We have to go out into the woods right when they open, at 10 a.m., to look for our trees,” said Kirsten. “As soon as someone finds a tree, we have to gather around it, hold hands, and sing a couple of verses of ‘O’ Christmas Tree.’ We call it ‘singing the tree,’ and then it belongs to us. At that point, the saw man can cut down the tree, but not before. They usually recognize us now, and they are pretty patient while we sing. You can hear the saw men say to one another, ‘Don’t cut that tree. They haven’t sung on it yet.’”
The group usually sings on six to eight trees, so everyone has one to take back to their own homes.
Once the tree cutting business is taken care of, the family tailgates with food. Sometimes, it’s a full-blown breakfast, with egg casseroles and donuts and hot chocolate. Other times, it’s light snacks with lunch at a restaurant afterward. No matter what else is on the menu, Grandpa Paul Sueppel still buys popcorn and fudge from the Handley’s Cocoa Cabin for the little ones to enjoy. Then, the little kids get to ride the train.
“And saying ‘little kids’ is a bit of a stretch,” Kirsten laughed. “This is the first year my kids haven’t ridden the train, and they are 17, 21 and 23. It’s a little cramped trying to get a six-foot-one kid on that train.”
But time does have a way of imposing changes to the long-standing tradition. Kirsten’s mom Judy Sueppel, the inspiration behind the yearly outing, passed away nine years ago. While her passing left a permanent absence in the group, Kirsten said they continued to come every Christmas anyway.
“There was no question about carrying it on. This is what we do,” she said.
Carrying it on for their own families is important, but this tradition has also had a way of spreading to others over the years.
“This year, my son brought his girlfriend, who had never cut a live tree before,” said Kirsten. “She came out the next day to get a tree for herself.” Other friends and guests have also tagged along, like the foster children Kirsten’s sister is currently caring for. Paul is remarried to Carolyn Sueppel– the couple now lives in Solon– and Carolyn and her family members sometimes join the party too.
“There are always a few extras,” said Kirsten, “and anytime you bring 30 people anywhere, it’s kind of a to-do.”
Margaret Handley, co-owner and operator of Handley’s Holiday Hillside, said the farm began selling Christmas trees in 1976, and the Sueppels and one other family are the only ones that she knows of who have been coming for as long as the business has been open.
“The other family is in their third generation of coming to buy trees,” said Margaret, “and I think the Sueppels aren’t far behind. That really gives us a very warm and good feeling. It ties in with the feeling that everybody should have at Christmas.”
Margaret herself grew up with such traditions.
“At my age, I am still remembering what we did when I was a child in our home during the holidays. I am kind of a romantic, but I think tradition is terribly important, especially nowadays, where everything is so rush-rush. Let’s take time out for a few family traditions, to make memories to remember.
Kirsten Hanrahan said she and her siblings and their families intend to do just that.
“We will just continue it forever,” said Kirsten. “For my kids, they just know it’s part of what we do. Sometimes you have to change the tradition to fit life at the time, but the core of it is still there. It’s about all of us getting together and doing things we have done before and will do again.”
Every year, for every Christmas to come.