Somewhere in Alabama. A small town with a cute main street, lots of muddy trucks, and men who wear neon orange, even to church.
The elementary school staff went overboard on decorations that year. Too overboard. The school had, for instance, purchased two dozen balsam fir Christmas trees.
The school placed the trees in each classroom, office, hallway, multi-purpose room, and urinal. They bought so many live trees the school had leftovers.
“It’s the fresh smell everyone likes,” said the 73-year-old maintenance man. “Everyone just loves a live tree.”
Let’s call him Butch. The grizzled janitor reminds you of your favorite uncle. He’s a Vietnam vet who smokes like a diesel freighter and is about as warm and fuzzy as 300-grit sandpaper.
After Butch decorated the school halls, he had three surplus balsams left. He stored the trees in the custodian’s closet, then texted a local preacher.
“I just told the preacher, ‘Hey, look, I got two or three trees left, if you know anyone who wants a real tree, just tell’em to call me. They can have one.’”
The first telephone call came in late that night. It was the voice of a child. A little girl.
“Is this the man with the trees?”
“Yes it is.”
“My family ain’t got no tree.”
The next day, Butch drove into the hinterlands, past miles of cotton and rows of peanuts, until he found a doublewide trailer on a dirt lot. A faded blue tarp covered the roof.
He installed the tree for the needy family and received roughly six thousand hugs before he left. The little girl wished him a merry Christmas. She even kissed his cheek.
On his drive back into town he got another phone call. “Hi,” said the voice of an old woman. “Is this the man with the trees?”
“Well, I’d love a real tree.”
In a few hours Butch was in an elderly woman’s living room, decorating a fragrant conifer while Bing Crosby sang in Deutsch.
Before he finished at the old woman’s place, another call came in. It was a teenage boy. “Is this the man giving away trees?”
Before Butch knew it he was across town, delivering his last fir to a family of six who lived in a one-bedroom unit in a rundown apartment building.
Then he was out of trees.
The next morning his phone woke him up. “Excuse me,” said the soft spoken voice of a young mother. “Is this the man with the free trees?”
He rubbed sleep from his eyes and almost told the woman that all his trees were gone, but he didn’t have the heart.
“I’ll be right over,” he said.
He stopped by a Christmas-tree lot near the Piggly Wiggly and bought their biggest tree. Soon, he was at a ramshackle house, standing on a ladder, hanging a shining star upon the highest bough.
He received four more calls about trees that day. The next day he got nine calls.
“Is this the man with the free trees?” they all asked.
Butch’s answer was always the same. “Gimme your address.” And then he delivered a tree. On the house.
He became a regular at the Christmas-tree lot each morning, purchasing more trees to give away. Sometimes he bought 10 trees at a time. Sometimes more. And still the calls kept coming. The requests came from all kinds.
A little girl with a mother dying of cancer. A single father who worked at the mill. A young family who lived in a house with no electricity or running water.
A 10-year-old boy being raised by his 19-year-old sister. Twelve residents of a local nursing home. A homeless woman who lived in a church shelter.
A Mexican dishwasher. A man living in an RV parked at a Walmart. A kid in critical condition in the local hospital.
Sometimes Butch delivered five or six free trees each day. By the end of the season, he had given away over 100 trees. Although, if he’s being honest, it was probably more than that. He lost count somewhere around 50.
“I don’t even wanna know how many I gave away, man. I ain’t keeping score. I don’t tell people what I’m doing because publicity ain’t what I’m about.”
After our short interview, I asked how his own house was decorated for Christmas.
There was a pause on the telephone.
“My house?” he said. “I ain’t got no decorations at my house.”
“Well, I did have a tree, but I got rid of it a few days ago.”
I asked where it went.
“Oh, some guy called and asked if I was the guy giving away trees. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ Then he told me he just got custody of his daughter on Monday, he wanted to have a real tree when she came to live with him. So I just gave him mine.”
Next, I asked the obvious question. I asked why anyone would do something like this for another.
His answer came quickly.
“That’s the wrong question,” he said. “The better question is, why not?”
Eileen - December 16, 2021 7:58 am
‘Tis the season.
Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me…
Sean, I say it again. You have a way with words.
Beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it with the world.
Sandi. - December 16, 2021 8:56 am
We can all learn a valuable lesson from that generous man in Alabama. Merry Christmas everyone!
Karen+Erwin-Brown - December 16, 2021 10:48 am
there are no Kleenex in the room that I’m reading this in. I do have a paper napkin with a truck and Christmas tree that I’m using. Seemed appropriate. I do love this one. Merry Christmas to all .
Joy Jacobs - December 16, 2021 11:22 am
Why not? Indeed. 🎄
Perri - December 16, 2021 11:31 am
So many ‘wrong’ questions in this world. Right?
Joan+Moore - December 16, 2021 11:58 am
God bless that man, and the storyteller…
gwenthinks - December 16, 2021 12:20 pm
you find the best stories. Thanks for sharing!
Paul McCutchen - December 16, 2021 12:57 pm
Sometimes it takes the strangest things to make people feel good about Christmas.
Janet W. - December 16, 2021 1:14 pm
You hit this one out of the park! A true keeper, for sure!
Larry Popwell - December 16, 2021 1:40 pm
I am speechless.
Praise the Lord’s workmanship.
PEGGY THOMPSON - December 16, 2021 1:42 pm
You always have beautiful stories!
Thank you & Merry Christmas!!⁹
Cathy M - December 16, 2021 2:05 pm
WOW❤️ Why not spread the love? Your stories inspire so many and touch hundreds of hearts. You are one of my Christmas blessings for sure
Ruth Mitchell - December 16, 2021 3:21 pm
I think I just read about a man who practices the “reason for the season.” 🎄🎄🎄🥰
Jan - December 16, 2021 3:51 pm
Another glorious story about people with hearts bigger than Texas! Thank you, Sean. And thank you Mr. Alabama Christmas Tree Angel!
Shelton A. - December 16, 2021 3:55 pm
What a story of giving! Giving is better than receiving as we all know. Merry Christmas to Butch and to you and Jamie. Let’s all learn the lesson Butch gave us in today’s column and act on it. Way to go and spread joy, Butch! Prayers for all whose lives were hurt or traumatized by tornadoes in the South and Midwest.
Stacey Wallace - December 16, 2021 4:07 pm
Thanks, Sean. I needed that.
Chasity Davis Ritter - December 16, 2021 5:19 pm
Why not….. 😭
MAM - December 16, 2021 9:09 pm
It’s the GOOD people you write about that make me cry the most, but they are always thankful tears! And thanks, awesome writer Sean, for telling us the GOOD stories about GOOD folks. It’s such a wonderful treat after all the awful news we hear day in and day out!
chuckaluck7 - December 17, 2021 4:21 am
I say Amen to all these wonderful stories about what Christmas is really about. It is in giving to those less fortunate.
Linda Moon - December 16, 2021 9:25 pm
Why not. What a good reason to give. And I thought… why not read yesterday’s Sean of the South post to remind me of another giver. So I did. You, Sean of the South, are an observant giver of LIFE’s stories like no one else. Now, what can I do for you?
Karen Snyder - December 16, 2021 10:39 pm
“. . . about as warm and fuzzy as 300-grit sandpaper.“ 😉 Gruff and grizzled usually hide a big ol’ marshmallow heart. What a beautiful human. Thanks for telling us about him. ❤️
Debbie g - December 17, 2021 3:28 am
I agree. With why not indeed
Beautiful Sean thanks for sharing. Love to all of us
Sean of the South: Trees of Alabama | The Trussville Tribune - December 17, 2021 4:37 am
[…] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]
Karen Korb - December 17, 2021 3:56 pm
What a beautiful story. Why not indeed+
Robyn - December 17, 2021 5:37 pm
Absolutely Sean..why not!!!! 😘💚❤️💚❤️💚
Earl Williams - December 18, 2021 3:09 pm
thank you Sean for touching my 300 grit side.. it’s less ruff because of your stories about life.. ♥️