Balsam Trees

We bought a live Christmas tree today. After nearly two decades of being married, my wife and I have never bought a live tree together.

We went with a balsam fir. We were going to get a Fraser fir or a Douglas fir, but we didn’t want to reverse mortgage our house.

The first thing I realized when buying a live tree is that Christmas trees have gone up in price considerably since my childhood. For a balsam fir that’s roughly the size of a mature traffic cone you’re looking at a price tag of $79.99.

“Think of this as an entry level tree,” said the tree salesman. “Kinda like the Toyota Corolla of the Christmas tree world.”

So after we paid for our tree, we strapped it to the top of our van and took the interstate home, traveling upwards of 75 mph. By the time we pulled into our driveway, most of the pine needles had blown away so that it looked like we had a piece of driftwood attached to our vehicle roof.

Once the tree was inside the house, we prepared to have a night of Christmas reverie and joy. I fetched the box of decorations while my wife cued up Christmas music on our streaming service ($10.99 per month).

And by “cued up Christmas music” I mean, of course, that my wife struggled with an endless technological nightmare of Wi-Fi settings, forgotten internet passwords, faulty modem connections, and customer service phone representatives headquartered in Bangladesh. Finally my wife said, “screw it,” and turned on the radio.

And the memories got so thick you had to swat them away like gnats.

When I was a kid we always had the best Christmas trees. I don’t know what happened over the years, but somewhere along the way my family quit using live trees.

Which is probably why the only Christmas tree paraphernalia I could find in our attic was a box of outmoded antiques that once belonged to my grandparents.

I found an old tree skirt made of white felt that predated the Roosevelt administration. I also found my family’s heirloom red-and-green Christmas-tree stand.

Every house in the Lower Forty-Eight used to have one of these metal, red-and-green, jack post treestands. It’s an invention about as worthless as a white crayon. These stands never worked, they were always causing your tree to topple and crash.

It is a proven statistic that the leading cause of U.S. divorces between 1929 and 1998 were red-and-green Christmas-tree stands.

Even so, putting up the tree during my childhood was a big event. It always went the same way.

My old man would come home from a long day at work. We’d hear his Ford roar up the driveway. He’d enter through the back door, covered in soot and sweat, carrying a fir tree about the size of the Jefferson Memorial.

“Get outta the way, this thing’s heavy,” he’d say.

He would triumphantly plop the tree into the living room like a dead musk ox and announce that it was time to make merry.

Mama would put Andy Williams on the hifi. My old man would crack open a can of high-octane cheer, and it was officially Christmas.

My mother would hold the tree steady while my father crouched beneath the boughs, manhandling the flimsy treestand. He tightened eye-bolts, braced wobbly legs, and whittled the base of the tree with his pocketknife so that it would fit. And this entire process took about as long as veterinary school.

“Hold it still!” he’d shout.

“I’m holding it still!” my mother would say.

“Hold it REALLY still!”

“What do you think I’m doing?”

“You’re moving the dang thing around, that’s what I think!”

Then my father would cuss.

This would be followed by the sound of my father screaming in bloodcurdling pain. “Ouch! You kicked me!”

And my mother would have already vanished from the room as the tree made its slow descent onto the floor.

After several hours and one case of Pabst, my father would finally get the unstable stand to work. But the tree was always crooked. The balsam would be leaning slightly northeast, pointing at about three o’clock.

Next my mother, my sister, and I would decorate the tree, painstakingly covering it in strands of white popcorn, colored lights, paper ornaments, garland, and three metric tons of tinsel.

Before bed, my sister and I would admire the twinkling bulbs in the darkness, talking about the mysteries of Saint Nick, the Virgin Birth, and the alternate lyrics to “We Three Kings.” And I can’t think of many memories that are any sweeter.

At some point during the midnight hours, when the whole world was fast asleep; when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even my hamster, the tree would fall over with a loud crash.

And somewhere in the darkness you could hear the faint sound of the old man dog-cussing.

So anyway, these were the things I thought about earlier today while I crawled under our live balsam fir. And it’s also what I was thinking about when I put up the framed picture of Daddy beside the tree.


  1. MaryLu - December 20, 2021 7:24 am

    We put up our 6-7’ Noble Fir a couple of days ago out here in Colorado. It also cost along the lines of what a cheap used car used to. My husband spent several minutes sawing off the bottom for a fresh cut, then pulling a giant plastic tree bag over the trunk (highly recommended from years of finding needles until the summer solstice), then screwing on that exact red and green metal tree stand that spends the rest of the year up above the garage. It was almost as much fun as your dad used to have, especially the part where I held the tree so it could be straightened once inside. The music came from a TV app but the radio would have been better. But it looks glorious, with a brand new tree skirt and its first ever light up star (we used to prefer angels). The ornaments, some of which are more than 50 years old now, bring back memories of our first married Christmas, ranging from the cheap plastic Santa and homemade clothespin reindeer from the kids to elegant laser cut designs from our travels. I think I’m going to go get the pictures of our long gone and much missed parents, and put them right by the tree. What a great idea and a lovely visit to nostalgia lane. Thanks Sean. And Merry Christmas to you and Jamie.

  2. Jan Hilton - December 20, 2021 8:09 am

    Some time in the 1970s, my father screwed that red and green tree stand onto a thick piece of board (about 2.5’ x 2.5’ square) which made it sturdy enough to hold the tree and stay flat on a carpeted floor. Cover the board up with the tree skirt and no one sees the board. Genius. My husband and I have it now.

  3. Pat Deas - December 20, 2021 1:04 pm

    You can dig up memories like no one else on earth !!! Enough Said! Merry Christmas to all y’all…

  4. Paul McCutchen - December 20, 2021 1:09 pm

    When my kids were small I would attach the tree stand in the garage, bring it in the house, level it up with magazines, then hide everything with a tree skirt. It would have fishing line attached to the wall because the cat would climb the tree and bring it down. When I was young I thought Santa was in the house but found out it was the pets ringing the bells on the tree, that is when I learned that Santa didn’t come in the afternoon.

  5. Joan+Moore - December 20, 2021 1:11 pm

    Merry Christmas!

  6. Jan - December 20, 2021 1:14 pm

    Precious memories … oh how they linger. Thanks for sharing yours and for making new ones as you go through life.

  7. Joy Jacobs - December 20, 2021 1:26 pm

    🎶memories🎶 We started the tradition of cutting a tree when our kids were young (now in their 40’s). At my age (70) I switched to the 4 foot fake one (the grandma style size) but my daughter still does the tree cutting tradition because as she says “it’s really the only Christmas tradition we have”.

  8. Leigh Amiot - December 20, 2021 1:55 pm

    Artificial tree here due to figuring out that the sniffles each Christmas came from the vicinity of the live pine tree. Downsized to a nice 4.5’ tree after the kids were grown and gone and find myself missing a full-size tree. A heart-shaped plastic ball of mistletoe festooned with red velvet ribbons goes up first, a decoration I bought for our home in 1986, the first Christmas my husband and I shared as a married couple. Hope it outlasts us and one of the kids or grandkids want it one day. I share Jamie’s thoughts on modern electronics and all the hoops we have to jump through to get them to operate. Makes me long for my parents’ old hi-fi and the Christmas albums stored in it.

  9. Melanie - December 20, 2021 1:56 pm

    Merry Christmas Sean and Jamie and all your critters ❤️

  10. Beachdreamer - December 20, 2021 2:01 pm

    I could see the whole event as I read. God bless you Sean for the memories…some not so sweet, but all a part of our lives to be remembered with a smile or a tear. I wish you and Jamie the happiest Christmas Season ever! It will be different this year I know…but aren’t they all? What isn’t different tho, is the reason for the season. It never changes….Jesus’ birthday! I pray each of us will remember to light a candle for Him.
    Merry Christmas 🎄

  11. Dawn - December 20, 2021 2:03 pm

    If I didn’t know better you would have been my brother! This was my family too! 🤣❤️

  12. NancyB. - December 20, 2021 2:24 pm

    Oh, goodness! I remember and miss those days! Mom would go out with us (brother, sister, me) to the pasture and we’d cut down a prickly, cedar tree. It always looked smaller in the pasture than it did when we finally got it to the living room. And, yes, we had a red and green tree stand. It was Mom rather than Daddy who was under the tree and as the oldest, my job was to “Hold it still! Is it straight?”” as Mom got it fastened in with those little eye bolts. And I got those little, prickly, cedar stickers in my fingers! Dad would be sitting in his chair muttering “Could you have found bigger one out there?” But we’d get it standing somewhat sturdily and then the fun began. First Mom had to untangle the lights. And of course, if one bulb was bad, the whole set would be out. So one at a time, she would take out and replace each and every bulb and put in a new one until she found the burned out one and got the whole string working. We’d string popcorn during this time while Dad continued to mutter from his chair. Always lights on first followed by the strings of popcorn and paper chains made at school, then the ornaments and star on top. That might have been all in many homes, but not with my mom. The final touch, icicles. And there was not a general living that could bark out orders like my mom did concerning icicles. Each one had to hang individually and freely with just enough bend over a branch to hold it on, the rest would hang straight. Every single branch had an icicle on its tip. “Nancy, get that clump off that tree! You know how to do it! One at a time!” Finally, it passed “General Mom’s” inspection and we could plug in the lights. It was glorious! Oh how I miss those days! Thanks for the walk down memory lane today, Sean. A most bessed Christmas to you and Jamie!

  13. Suellen - December 20, 2021 2:31 pm

    I didn’t realize the price of trees had gone up so much. It was our family tradition to go out and cut down a live tree until one year I started wheezing bad when I helped my husband move the thing out of the house. That explained why I seemed to get sick every year at Christmas. So I put my foot down and we went out and bought what we could afford in artificial trees. It was the cheapest one Walmart had. Hardly big enough to hold all our ornaments and with big gaps between the limbs. It’s kind of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I envy MaryLu and her new tree skirt. We’ve needed to replace ours for several years due to one of our dogs “customizing” this one. Every year more buttons and ties and ornaments seemed to be missing. I priced tree skirts this year and thought “this one will do for another year” and besides it lets us remember our dear departed Augie. The dachshund who tried to eat everything and we had the Vet bills to prove it.

  14. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - December 20, 2021 2:46 pm

    We had the chrome tree. Every year without fail. Blue glass balls. A stand that rotated the tree & played Silent Night & Jingle Bells. A color wheel light that made the tree change colors. Sat on the coffee table in our big picture window. Looked great from the street.

  15. Patricia Gibson - December 20, 2021 2:49 pm

    Merry Christmas 🎄🎁

  16. Shelton A. - December 20, 2021 2:54 pm

    Hope the Christmas memories made it all worthwhile. Great story…I learned the language of cussing from my Dad, too, so we have that in common. Merry Christmas to all!

  17. Gordon - December 20, 2021 2:54 pm

    Sweet, wonderful memoirs are SO special at Christmastime. Thank you for sharing yours, Sean. Your thoughts helped to being happy, wonderful memories of my early Christmases to my mind. Thanks

  18. Karen - December 20, 2021 3:03 pm

    You stirred up some great memories. Vacuuming up falling needles happened daily. The tree smelled great though.

  19. Lifetime Chicago - December 20, 2021 3:32 pm

    I should write a story about this one but in 1987 my son was six months old sitting in a carry all on a wood floor by the real Christmas tree that I was decorating and it was not in the stand correctly. Needless to say, it feel and I was able to kick my son’s carry all away from the falling tree. My son has ADHD today, maybe that is why!

  20. Ruth Mitchell - December 20, 2021 3:38 pm

    YOUR memories begat MY memories, and I’m now sobbing like a baby. Thank you for a holiday cleanse I needed.

  21. Elizabeth - December 20, 2021 3:44 pm

    Merry Christmas, Sean & Jamie, and blessings for the New Year!

  22. Karen Snyder - December 20, 2021 3:49 pm

    Ahh, another fine rabbit hole you’ve sent me down this morning. When I was a youngster, before artificial trees made their way into our homes, putting up the tree was indeed a process every year. I, too, can see Daddy with the handsaw, whittling off lower branches and, with Mom’s assistance, wresting the tree into the position most likely to obscure the inevitable “hole.” I believe his beer of choice, however, was either Centlivre or Berghoff, from the hometown breweries. Thanks for the memory. Merry Christmas! 🎄

  23. Margaret Jackson - December 20, 2021 4:13 pm

    I laughed out loud at the description of your father trying to get the tree in that stand!

    My daddy was a mailman, and back in the ’60’s & thru the late ’70’s, he would be finished with his route by about 11:30 each day. He wiuld have a cedar tree picked out for our Christmas tree by Dec. 18th.
    On the 18th, he’d have the tree cut and in the stand when we got off the school bus.

    Mom would have all the lights on, then my brother and I would put on all the decorations. By the 27th, it was a sad sight, even with me(!) crawling under and watering it every day. Daddy insisted that EVERY strand of tinsel was off the tree before we were thru.

    That was a long time ago, but I’m sure there is still a box with that same tinsel in the top of my front bedroom closet.

    You and Jamie have a blessed Christmas season. All of my husband’s & my parents are gone, but the first Christmas after their passing was always the most bittersweet.

  24. Jeannine Auth - December 20, 2021 4:17 pm

    Oh, I am dying here! Absolutely so on target and funny beyond belief. Thank you for making us laugh when it is much needed in today’s world.

  25. Spence Bilbo - December 20, 2021 4:40 pm

    Thanks! That was a wonderful, realistic story. Would loved to have met your dad.

  26. Linda Moon - December 20, 2021 5:50 pm

    So, after reading your wonderful Anniversary story from yesterday, I’m surprised to read today that Sean & Jamie never bought a Christmas Tree together. This story, though, had a perfect ending after all the commotion: your Daddy’s framed picture beside the tree. I’m looking at my old man’s framed picture right now beside the last postcard he sent. Wonderful life-stories. And, what A Christmas Story from you!

  27. Amanda - December 20, 2021 9:10 pm

    In the early 60s my Daddy solved the wobbly tree in the green and red stand easily. He got a hammer and nails and nailed that sucker to the hard wood floor. I believe he was assisted by Jim Beam.

  28. Lynn Carol Owen - December 20, 2021 9:54 pm

    Love it. Can picture it like it was in my own living room in the 1950’s. 🎄

  29. Christina - December 20, 2021 10:22 pm

    What a tender moment worth beyond $79.99.

  30. Mary Connelly - December 20, 2021 11:03 pm

    Loved the memories in this piece. It brought up so many fond thoughts of Christmas past. I miss the pines trees. Remember when those flocked trees were popular? As a kid I hated those trees because they didn’t smell “like Christmas trees should.” Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! May our memories brighten these days!

  31. Chasity Davis Ritter. - December 21, 2021 3:00 am

    Merry Christmas Sean and Jamie. I cried when you said you had your Daddy’s picture by the tree. I’ve had my Dad’s memorial tree up for four Christmases now. His picture is on the very top in a Santa hat and another further down from our last Christmas together. (I’m thankful he suffered my selfies) I sure do miss him too.

  32. J H - December 24, 2021 2:47 am

    Yes to all the above only we listened to Bing Crosby White Christmas album. We would go get a cedar tree, which looks much better before decorations are hung. Our kids were raised listening to Bing and my husband & I struggled with the tree stand. Yes, cussing was involved 🙂 Merry Christmas!!

  33. Janet W - December 24, 2021 2:08 pm

    I love having you in my email every morning! Your endings to every story are always a surprise. Merry Christmas and thank you for being you.


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