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December 2004
Chicago Tribune

O No, Christmas Tree


By Terry Sullivan. Terry Sullivan is a frequent contributor to the Magazine but never learned welding
Published December 5, 2004

I haven't any idea about trees falling in forests, but I can tell you firsthand that when a 9-foot Christmas tree falls in a living room, amazingly nobody hears it.

On either occasion.

Happened the first time in my childhood, at my maternal grandmother's house. Understand that this was a German grandmother, with the genetic need for a tree that wouldn't be ashamed to stand in the lobby of a medium-sized hotel. Only the ceiling height stopped her, and until I was 10 I didn't know Christmas trees came to a point-all of ours had been seriously lopped off to fit the room.

Imagine a giant bush in a corner, hanging over half of the furniture. The same German needs required that the lead tinsel (now sadly banned, probably because we kept chewing it as children) be hung one strand at a time, and carefully pinched over the branch so the ends didn't show, until great sheets of it bent the branches. And that certain of the ancestral ornaments be hung in their traditional places, and, most important of all, that the wires for the lights-lovely, tiny yellow lights, made to illuminate telephone switchboard lines, that my grandfather had brought home from the Western Electric plant where he worked-be snaked invisibly along the branches.

The day of the trimming was also the day of my grandparents' traditional annual holiday fight-about the unacceptably visible wires, or tinsel that wasn't hanging as straight as a Marine colonel's spine, or a pickle ornament my grandfather had placed where the glass tomato was supposed to hang. My grandfather was a Swede from Brooklyn, and probably didn't fully understand German ornamentation regulations as well as he might have.

And yes, there was a pickle ornament-and a carrot, and an ear of corn and the above-mentioned tomato. Lots of foodstuffs, although there was no fruit, Germany being a root-vegetable culture. I'm sure there would have been potatoes and a rutabaga if they'd been available.) There were fish, birds with fiber tails and a violin. There were bubble lights and I need not, I'm sure, tell you that they were the only perfectly vertical bubble lights in Christendom. Some of these suffered a nasty death or serious dismemberment the night the tree fell, a fate not unlike what awaited my grandfather when the tree was found supine the next morning.

All of which is how my father, the son-in-law in this case, came to create The World's Best Christmas Tree Stand. He no doubt was interested in calming his mother-in-law, getting his father-in-law off the hook and preventing future Christmas tragedies, but he was also a man who liked a challenge. And he was a machinist.

So he went off to work, where he borrowed some spare steel from the Illinois Central Railroad, much like my grandfather had borrowed those switchboard lights. He delivered a 20-inch-square, 3/8-inch-thick steel plate with a piece of 7-inch-diameter iron pipe, about 10 inches tall, welded to it. The thing weighed maybe 75 pounds and he painted it a festive silver.

After he brought it to my grandmother's, he took a slightly smaller piece of pipe and drove it onto the tree base with an 8-pound maul, then telescoped the tree-holding pipe into the one welded to the plate and inserted four bolts into the threaded holes he'd tapped around the top of the pipe. These were completely unnecessary, of course, but he was making sure. He'd made the stand while he was supposed to be working on the railroad, and his goal was clearly to fashion something you could drive a freight train into without fear.

I didn't think much about all of this until I was married, with giant trees of my own. (I'd inherited the need for a Marshall Field's-sized display, if not quite the fuss-budgety ornament-placement gene.)

We would carefully decorate the tree's boughs to the delight of our smiling children, hanging vegetation and fauna ("Ornta-ments!" my youngest would croon) and trying to hide the wires on the lights. I use clear bulbs and a rheostat dialed down low in an attempt to replicate the small glow of those switchboard lights. (It's a genetic thing.) And no tinsel, because my family has rejected the plastic stuff as unwilling to hang perfectly straight, the way Gott intended. I've added 150 feet of (fake) pearls instead, and, while they are horizontal and violate the verticality rule, I like to think my grandmother would approve. The result is stunning, if I do say so myself.

Or it was until the fateful morning we got up and found the tree, ornta-ments and all, fallen to its death, scattering my inherited glass pickle, carrot and violin to the carpet. Which is when I remembered that the holiday season after my grandparents passed away, perhaps to festoon some tannenbaum in the sky, my sister (who has lower ceilings than I do, by the way) had quietly laid claim to the World's Best Christmas Tree Stand.

I spent the next couple of dozen years buying a series of failed tree stands. They were made of cheap, punched-out sheet metal. They bent. They wobbled. They required six months' worth of magazines under one leg to present a straight tree, the application of which itself once resulted in a fallen free before the pickle had even been hung. (And there's a phrase I'll bet you've never read before.)

I considered doing what the guys at Daley Plaza do with the Mayor's giant tree-guy wires attached to stakes-but my wife drew the line at my driving spikes into the living room floor. In the end I wired the treetops to door frames and walls with picture-hanging materials. But instead of dreaming of sugarplums, I would sleep restlessly, knowing that somewhere my grandmother was telling my father that she could see the wires, and that his stand was much better.

And then a couple of years ago some other Germans came to my rescue. Who else would care enough about monster Christmas trees to bother? I found the Krinner Christmas Tree Genie for sale at Poor Bob's, my local tree lot in Evanston. It is the BMW of tree stands, right down to being made in Bavaria. It is the pure application of Deutsche-engineering to the problem of holding a towering balsam aloft in a living room.

Big, flat bottom, wider than the one my dad made. In the center are five impressive jaws, connected by a circular steel cable. You stick the tree in the middle-it takes ones up to 7 inches in diameter-impaling it on a small spike to hold it steady, and pump a foot pedal while the jaws close in around the base of the tree, automatically adjusting to bumps and knots and just as automatically, even magically, straightening the tree.

You not only don't have to crawl on your stomach to adjust it with magazines while pine needles fall down your collar, you can do it with one hand. (And one foot.) Pour a gallon and a half of water into the thing and it weighs more than enough to hold up a nine-footer, even if it is a touch lighter than Dad's.

And on the 12th day of Christmas (or 33d in some households), you just tap the bottom of the pedal back up and the jaws pop loose. You've got an inquisitive cat or a 3-year-old? You can lock the pedal in place by sticking a nail or a small padlock through a hole.

There are other high-end stands out there, but they involve ratchet-driven cables or even guy wires, and they lack the elegance, and the magic jaws, of the Bavarian model.

So: a completely unsolicited product endorsement of the Second Best Christmas Tree Stand in the World, dirt cheap at $69.95. It's available at retail outlets that sell that sort of thing, including a bunch of tree lots, Equinox on north Broadway, Fertile Gardens on Diversey, Old Town Gardens on Wells Street, plus Web sites including or

And if you happen to own a house with one of those 20-foot cathedral ceilings, and if you happen to be German and think that a 7-inch-thick trunk and a 9-foot tree are for sissies, the Bavarians tell me the Krinner Tree Genie XXL, an even bigger version, is coming next year.

And my sister can keep the tree stand. I got the pickle.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune
Cheat Sheet | A Christmas tree stand that won't let the fir fall

By Alan J. Heavens
Inquirer Real Estate Writer

Any day now, Christmas trees will turn up for sale everywhere, including street corners and church parking lots. And while fans of real trees will spend a fair amount of time driving around looking for the perfect fir, few will spend as much time trying to find the right stand to set it in.

The stand is a critical first step to keeping your tree balanced, so it doesn't fall over from the weight of the ornaments and lights. Even more important is its role in maintaining your tree's freshness through the holidays.

Need to know: Experts say we should be less concerned with the ability of the stand to keep the tree upright than with the amount of water the stand will hold. Checking the water level daily is critical. A tree can use up to one quart of water per day for each inch of stem diameter. If you have a tree that is about six feet tall with a trunk that measures about four inches in diameter, you will need to have a stand that holds at least one gallon of water.

Remember to factor in displacement. Information that comes with a tree stand typically includes how much water the stand holds, but doesn't account for the amount of water the tree will displace once it's in the stand. Look for a stand with literature on this point.

Operating manual:A stand should be wide at the base and able to hold the tree firmly, safely and straight. The stand should be completely stable when you place it on the floor without the tree. The best stands sit flat on the floor, although those with legs should be made of metal or hard, durable plastic. If screws are used to force the tree to sit evenly in the stand, the screws should be made of metal, rather than more breakable plastic. Some stands come with a metal spike in the middle, so the tree can be lodged into it.

The stand also should be durable, meaning that after water has been sitting it, the parts aren't covered with rust. If the stand doesn't come in one piece, it should be relatively easy to put together.

What it will cost: You can buy a stand for $10, but I wouldn't. You're probably going to reuse it for many years, so why not spend more for something that not only lasts a long time, but that you'll grow so accustomed to using that putting up the tree will be a snap every year. From $40 to $45 is a good range.

Innovative stands: Here are two stands, found on an Internet search, that "stand out" from the rest:

Grinnen's Last Stand, $40. It holds the tree straight with a strap and ratchet, and has a removable water tank.

Krinner Christmas Tree Stand XXL-12, $79. It uses a foot pedal to adjust a clamp and claw trunk-installation system, and holds trees up to 12 feet tall.

Don't do this: Do not trim the sides of the trunk to make a tree fit in a stand. Trees drink from the sides near the trunk. Trimming the trunk is bound to make the tree more wobbly, too. If the trunk is too wide, you'll need to buy a bigger stand. Some stands have a circular ring at the top, and the ring must be large enough for the trunk to go through. Other stands are open, which may allow a greater range in trunk size.

Good advice:Instead of trying to insert the tree into the stand upright, put plastic down on the floor to protect it and lay the tree down. Loosen the metal screws that allow you to center and hold the tree in place, so that you have a wide berth to adjust them later. Tighten the screws so that the trunk ends up in the middle of the stand. Then get someone else to help you get the tree upright and move it to the right spot.

If the stand has a metal spike, position the spike directly in the center of the trunk. You can tap the bottom of the stand so that the spike fits tightly into the trunk, but don't bang it so hard that you bend the stand or the spike.

Want Alan J. Heavens' advice on a home-improvement project or purchase? E-mail him or write him at The Inquirer, Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101.

© 2005 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.