Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The indestructible Tree Stand and other Christmas memories

I need to find a photo of the Christmas trees of my childhood.
This Christmas card is a few years before my time--1913!
It's the season to share memories.  I have written about Christmas memories in the past, hopefully there is something new in this post.

Early in December we would head to an empty lot on Oleander Drive where the Optimist Club, who sponsored Little League baseball at Hugh McRae Park, sold trees.  It was always dark.  There, under bare lights strung up from posts, we would make our way through the lot trying to find the perfect tree.  It was never an easy task as we all had our own favorite ones.  It couldn’t be too tall, as the ceiling in the living room was only eight feet, or too short for that wouldn’t show much of a tree in front of the picture window.  We wanted neighbors and those driving down the road to see and enjoy our tree.  Nor could it be too expensive.  There was so much to consider which makes picking the tree a major feat, but it seems that we always found a perfect one.  Having settled on the tree, dad would pay the men who were standing around a barrel where they were burning wood scraps to stay warm (even though it was never that cold).  We’d tie the tree into the trunk and head home, happy and satisfied. 

We never put the tree up right away.  Dad felt that since these trees had come from Canada or somewhere way up north and had been cut for a few weeks, it needed water.  So he would cut a few inches off the bottom of the trunk so that the tree could draw water and then sit the tree overnight in a pail of water.  Putting up a tree was a two-night task. 

The next evening, after dinner, we would decorate the tree.  Before bringing in the tree inside, my dad would lug the tree stand into the living room and place it on a piece of plastic to protect the floor.  I am not sure where he kept the stand for ours was unlike any I had ever seen before or since.  Dad made it himself.   I don’t know what became of it after my parents switched to artificial trees, but this was a stand to survive a nuclear attack.  It was built on a piece of plate steel, maybe 18 or 24 inches square and 3/8 of an inch thick.  Onto this, he had welded a tube with a three or four inch in diameter pipe (another tree requirement was that’s trunk had to fit into the pipe).   He had drilled and thread holes in the top where he ran bolts to hold the tree upright.  One of the problem with this stand is that you couldn’t put much water into it, so after the first year, he drilled holes into the first pipe, then welded on an eight inch metal pipe around the first pipe.  The second pipe was a few inches shorter than the first and made it easy to add water and hold water.  The stand was so secure that the tree itself would break before the stand would sway over.  As a kid, I was a little embarrassed about the tree stand.  Why couldn’t we have a flimsy store-brought stand like everyone else? As an adult, after having several trees knocked over (first, when I was in my mid-20s, by a drunken guest, then it was by Happy, the cat and the final time by Trisket, the dog), I see the wisdom of such a solid foundation.   I have no idea what became of this stand.  My parents switched to artificial trees shortly after my siblings and I vacated their home.  Perhaps the stand rusted away as a boat mooring.   It could have held a battleship.

The first thing in decorating was putting up the lights.   During my childhood, instead of using miniature lights that are now so popular (and a lot easier on the electric bill), we used screw-in lights with larger bulbs. These bulbs not only burned a lot of electricity, they created a lot of heat so we only turned the tree on when we were in the living room because to burn the bulbs too much would risk drying it out and making the whole enterprise a fire hazard.  After the lights, we were allowed to place ornaments on the tree.  There was a star that my dad would place on the top.   The final thing to go on the tree was the icicles.  My mom insisted that each one of the foil icicles be hung individually, which meant the tree never had enough icicles because we would tire of the task long before the tree was covered. 

On a table, we set out the nativity scene… the ceramic figures crowded into a manager that my dad had built out of plywood (and looked a lot like the three-sided shelters I’ve spent many a night in along the Appalachian Trail).   The living room, where the tree was at, was full of activity in December as we spent as much time as possible marveling at the tree.  During the rest of the year, the room was “off limits” except when we had company.  It was the visiting room.  But during those weeks from early December to New Year’s Day (when the tree was taken down), the room was full of life.  On Christmas morning, we were forbidden to enter the room until my parents were up (they were always sleepy and the last up and a few times we did slip in to see what was waiting around the tree).  When my father was ready, Super-8 movie camera in his hands with flood lights as bright as an atomic explosion, we’d run in all excited only to quickly shield our eyes from the blinding lights, as we checked out the presents from Santa (the unwrapped presents that circled the tree).  Favorite memories include an AM-FM radio, a microscope, an erector-set, a lever-action BB gun, and a bicycle.  When I was 12, there was a rifle (that is still in my gun safe but hasn’t been shot in decades) and the next year there were golf clubs.  Thanks to having a much younger sibling, my brother and sister and I kept receiving “Santa gifts” well until high school!  After checking out what Santa left, we’d open the wrapped presents and eat candy and fruit.  An hour or so later, my parents would fix a big breakfast, but we were not that hungry.  Afterwards, we’d play in the yard or get in the car for the ride up to Pinehurst to see grandparents.   

By Christmas night, we’d all be tired.  One year, for some reason, I remember listing to that AM-FM radio (that replaced my little 9 volt transistor radio) and they were playing “Judy in Disguise with Glasses.”   

May you have a  Merry Christmas! 


  1. Sounds remarkably like my childhood Christmas days, including the nuclear bomb proof Christmas stand. The one my parents used and still use, is made from bent rebar legs welded to a square tube with threaded bolts. I think I could sit on top as the angel and the tree would still remain upright! When I got my own place, I searched high and low for an indestructible tree stand of my own and had to settle for the one I still use. It is a lot prettier for sure but it a royal pain to find a tree that can fit in it without being too small or too big. I always end up screwing shims to the base or sawing off hunks to get it to fit properly in the stand. Still I wouldn't trade it for an artificial tree. I love the smell of fresh red cedar in my house over the holidays. Nothings else says Christmas more to me.

  2. Happy Christmas Jeff, and to all around you.

    I've not had a tree since I got the hound. She scared the life out of me by tangling herself in the light cord and couldn't begotten out the way she went in.
    My Gran has an artificial tree made of silver foil twisted through wire. It lived in the box it was bought for the rest of the year. But what I remember most of those early Christmases was the crystal balls. These were truly beautiful things but they had a fatal flaw. To hold them on the tree a piece of spring steel about the size of a paperclip but built in the shape of an old clothes peg. This was inserted into the bauble. However if one walked too near the tree you'd set off a tremor that would have the ball drop clean from the tree and smash in such a way as to define the word smithereens. This thing would atomize.

  3. I almost forgot how we used to cut a few inches off the bottom of our tree if we were going to keep it up awhile. Old knowledge slips away.

  4. heh, def sounds familiar...we always set our tree up early...we did put a fresh cut on the tree...i remember always going to my aunts...and so many family would be there...i miss those times...

    merry christmas man

  5. I've never had a real tree before. One day I want to experience it.

    I loved your flashback memories, Sage! Thanks for sharing them with us.

    Merry Christmas!!!

  6. Merry XMas to you ... oh, ya ... got those certain XMas memories too ... especially: Picking just the right tree ... picture this: Out in the woods ... looking for just the right tree ... snow, so much snow ... all of us sweating more and more as we are fighting for the right tree ... this is the one ... no way ... that one ... noooo ... finally we find "the one" ... after many screaming matches ... every year the same ... smiles ... Merry XMas, eh? Love,cat.

    1. ... by the way ... as you mentioned radio ... I listen to .... :) Love, cat.

  7. Those are some nice Christmas memories! Merry Christmas to you!

  8. I always enjoy reading about your memories and stories along the road of your life! It brings to mind for me just how special our memories are. This time of year, I can thank all the times (especially those of my childhood) that are just memories now, but they are the foundation of my goodwill and spirit that I share year after year to all and especially my loved ones. We are all filled with such goodness and bright-spirit that carries us through the whole year too! A very Happy, loving and Merry Christmas greeting to you and all your loved ones.

  9. A nice nostalgic look back. I remember those BRIGHT flashbars. Everyone would be squinting in the subsequent movie. And Judy in Disguise... thanks for the ear worm. :)

  10. my parents always had an artificial tree and we put the lights on it after we'd hung up all the decorations.

    Nowadays we have a living tree that goes back to my partner's mother's garden after 12th night and if it doesn't grow too much in the next year we'll get it back next Christmas, or if it is too big by then , we'll use another tree from her garden. No lights these days.

  11. I loved reading this, Sage. I grew up with real trees and I loved it… so much magic in all my memories. One thing I fear for my own kids is wondering if they're feeling the same magic I did or if life is so different now that it's impossible to recreate… I felt a bit of nostalgia reading this. Beautiful. :)

  12. I really enjoyed your post and am thinking about getting a real tree next year. I's a lot of work, but a lovely tradition. Happy New Year!