Creating Family Memories for a Lifetime

A Magical Family Tradition: Picking Out a Christmas Tree

Magical memories are created every year when families carve out a special time to pick out a Christmas tree together for their home. The entire experience is centered on finding that perfect tree. Is it tall or plump? Maybe short and thin? Compromises are made, snow maybe thrown, and the art of cutting down the year’s tree is often the first memory of a new holiday season.

Family traditions are precious, and for the families below, picking out their live Christmas tree every year continues to create special moments that remain close to the heart.

Clay and Kathy Norris Family

Ever since the Norris family moved to Iowa in 1997, they've incorporated tree shopping into their overall Christmas experience.

“Searching for the perfect tree is always quite exciting! It has been something that our family cherishes, so we have continued it,” Kathy Norris said. “It is a wonderful time to share as a family and a time for us to all be together and enjoy the adventure of tree picking.”

Clay added, “They smell so good and it just feels right – plus the family adventure has become such a part of our Christmas celebration. It has become even more special to include our grandsons into the adventure.”

Every year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the family gathers to shop for the perfect Christmas tree. While it was easier when all six kids lived at home, whoever can make it to Spirit Lake piles into the van and shops for the most alive well-shaped tree that fits into the family’s sun room.

When the Norris’ family first started shopping for live trees, they drove to Linn Grove and then tried Sioux Falls. Now, the family enjoys going to the Tannenbaum Christmas Tree Farm in Milford. Kathy said everyone walks around together, looking and pointing out trees they think might work. As a group, they view a certain tree and each person gives a "yay" or "nay" until they find the perfect tree and have full consensus.

“I remember one year when it was so cold! I think we literally picked out a tree in ten minutes,” she said. “We walked to the closest one and said, ‘yep, that’s perfect!’ We cut it and ran back to the car!”

For Emily Norris, her first tree hunt tradition was the Christmas after Andy (oldest son of Clay and Kathy) and her got engaged. Growing up, Emily’s family always had an artificial tree, so there was a huge sense of excitement and wonder. She said the whole experience lived up to her magical expectations.

“We had hot apple cider, chocolate covered pretzels and joked around about which tree was best. It was the perfect way to help me become an official part of the Norris family,” she said.

Once Tannebaum bags the tree, the family ties it to the top of the mini-van. Kathy remembers how one year, the tree fell off the vehicle and onto the side of the road. The family had to stop, grab it and quickly tie it back on.

With Clay and Kathy’s six children and their families ranging from Canada to Michigan to Iowa, the tree cutting and decorating has evolved from the whole family to those who are home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Everyone helps with the decorating, with the most important ornaments being the kids' picture ornaments.

“Whoever is home always picks who is the favorite and puts those ornaments front and center!” Kathy added. “I love the Christmas season, Christmas music, baking and family time. The tree decorating and cutting makes the season very special.”

Clay added, “The best part about the Christmas season is love, giving, warmth and family.”

Matt and Amber Lippon Family

Five years ago, Matt and Amber Lippon started a new holiday tradition when their family visited the Tannenbaum Christmas Tree Farm in Milford. Amber had memories of growing up with a live tree and always loved the smell and look.

The Lippon family set out amongst the trees, each looking for their own favorite.

“We love the Tannenbaum Christmas Tree Farm,” Amber said. “It has been a fun tradition we’ve created as a family.”

Matt, Amber, and the three girls all have varying opinions of which tree to bring home.

“We’ve all learned great lessons in compromising throughout our tree buying experiences,” she said.

Matt and Amber have the final word in the selection process, but they try to be fair and pick one all five of them love. The end result is generally a tall and full tree.

“Whatever, our living room allows,” Amber added.

Once they have their final selection, Tannenbaum bags the tree and they load it up for home. Amber says it can be a process to get the tree inside the door, but after five years, they have figured out a system.

Amber will string the lights throughout the tree, but the three girls do the majority of the decorating.

“My decor and style is simple: whites, silvers, golds, and a little burlap thrown in,” she said.

Family time is one of the most important things the Lippon Family loves about the Christmas season. Other traditions they incorporate are enjoying the Polar Express and light show to baking, decorating, and eating their own small batch of sugar cookies.

“I love that my girls still see the magic of the season,” Amber said. “Our oldest daughter’s birthday is also on Christmas Day, so it’s just a really special time for our family all around.”

Larry and Abbi Wajda Family

In homage to the traditional Griswold family Christmas (National Lampoons), the Wajda family plans a Saturday morning where they cook breakfast, layer the clothes, and head out to an area tree farm. Each year, a different child gets to choose the tree and sometimes Larry says the selection process can be interesting.

“Abbi and I try to guide them to a suitable tree if you will, but as each parent knows, there is no reasoning with kids under 10….,” he added.

Each of the six family members contributes to the selection process in a different way. Larry said, “Jack and I are the muscle of sawing and dragging, while Abbi is the mental glue of keeping a family of six peaceful in a vehicle. Sydney will forecast what has enough room under the tree, while Zoe and Bo are responsible for trying to convince us how we need two trees or a how a bigger tree means bigger presents.”

He also said that Abbi has the innate ability to predict which limbs on a tree can support years of homemade decorations and which ones are going to be too popular for their family’s cats.

Once the tree is selected and cut, the next challenge is getting the live tree tied to the top of the family’s truck. The goal is to not have any flying objects leaving the vehicle and hitting someone behind them. Next, they talk about how to get the Christmas tree into the house.

“There’s lots of twinning, pruning, and shouts of ‘PIVOT! PIVOT!’” Larry said.

Abbi and the kids decorate the tree while Larry "supervises"! They fill the tree with loads of homemade ornaments, colorings, and drawings. The family used to buy a new ornament every year, but the challenge of cats climbing into trees and little ones with not so delicate hands, Larry and Abbi decided to abandon the tradition and keep the tree more family-oriented and homey.

The family also loves the smell of a live tree in their home and how they can use the natural wood in the wood furnace at the end of the season.

“We love everything about the Christmas season—the weather, the Christmas spirit, the movies, the religious components, the family time,” Larry said. “Each person in our family has a different preference, but we all look forward to Monkey bread on Christmas morning, a new board game, and new pajamas that are worn all day until we go to a movie.”

For them, the Christmas season begins with finding the perfect Christmas tree – a family tradition they treasure.

Choosing a Christmas Tree

Before heading out to pick out the best Christmas tree, look around your home and consider the space. The best Christmas tree for the spacious living room will be vastly different than the corner of the family room. Measure the area where you want it placed, including the ceiling height, and remember a tree continues to grow after being placed inside. Don’t forget to measure the distance from the ground and consider the tree stand. Then check the door space to make sure the tree fits through.

Another item to remember is the tree width and whether you want all of the sides displayed. Some trees may be slightly flat or thin on one side, which isn’t an issue if the tree is being placed in a corner.

Take your time picking out your Christmas tree. “Always look for a tree with good shape, no holes and a straight trunk,” said Dave Stover, owner of Tannenbaum Tree Christmas Tree Farm. “When you bring the tree back, we will shake the dead needles out and get it ready for transport.”

After the fresh cut, place the tree into water as soon as possible. Otherwise the trunk will scab over, preventing the tree from being able to absorb water later. Ensure that there is always water in the basin, but not too much because you don’t want to drown it.

Also, remember to keep the tree out of harsh sunlight and warm drafts from vents. This can discolor your tree and shorten its lifespan.

For those who aren’t into venturing out, Ferguson’s Garden Center offers a wide variety of Christmas trees and greenery, including 5’ to 15’ in Balsam Fir, Fraser Fir and White Pine. Fresh evergreen wreaths come in sizes 24”-48” and garland is sold by the foot. For those who like to create outdoor planters, Ferguson's also has spruce tips and mixed greens, as well as birch poles, pine cones, sticks, berries, and ribbon available for decorating fun.

Ferguson’s Renee Quance said they offer a fresh cut on all Christmas trees and will set it in a stand for no charge. Local delivery begins at $10. Decorating and planter creation is also available.

“Fresh evergreen lasts the longest with cooler temperatures, moisture, and not too much sun to dry it out.  So, how long the greenery lasts is very dependent on our weather,” Quance said. “We keep our fresh greens in a cooler to help them last longer, and if you’re putting your greens in an outside pot, give them a good drink of water over top of the greens to help them soak up some moisture.”

No matter the color or how big or small, short or tall, the tree your family decides to bring home will be just right! Just remember to have fun, and in the end, the joy is in the experience of choosing a Christmas tree with your family.

Check the Tree for Freshness

Testing the tree isn’t just giving it an eye test. There are several things to ensure your family is getting the best Christmas tree for your home.

Bounce the Tree: Hold the tree up a few inches from the ground and drop it, but don’t let the tree fall on its side. If only a couple needles drop, you have a good tree.

Test the Needles: Grab the interior side of any branch on the tree. Close your hand and pull it towards yourself. If you end up with needles in your hand, it’s not a great tree. A fresh tree should have minimal to no needles coming off.

Test the Branches: Bend the outer branches. If they snap easily, the tree is too dry.

Crush the Needles: To test its fragrance, crush a couple needles and take a whiff. The smell should be strong.