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Feature Story

The search for the perfect Christmas tree


This holiday tradition is far from perfect, but those who partake wouldn’t have it any other way

The image of cutting down your own Christmas tree is a holiday delight. Getting outside for some old-fashioned family fun while tracking down the ideal evergreen is enough to bring many fine folks to their local tree farm. But buying an authentic pine isn’t always as easy as it sounds, as we found out from a few local tree enthusiasts, and it doesn’t always end up as perfectly as one hopes. But make no mistake, many of those who partake wouldn’t have it any other way.


Hunting for Christmas trees with four boys who are all younger than 10 is a bonafide parenting adventure.

“While I’d like to say that our trips to the tree farm are always loving, warm and full of joy, that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Steve Nuzum, the family’s father.

The annual trek for the perfect tree is a highlight of the family’s holiday season.

Steve and Ashley Nuzum enjoy the adventure of taking their four boys Christmas tree hunting.

Prep Iowa

“It’s reminiscent of beating your head against the wall,” says Steve. “They (the four kids) spill hot chocolate all over the car, fight and argue the whole half-hour drive. And everyone has their own idea of what the perfect tree looks like.”

Charlie Brown would envy some of the needle-less laughing stocks the Nuzum kids have longed for: Short. Fat. Tall. Skinny. Trees with thick pine needles, and trees with thin ones, Nuzum says his kids have pined for leaning trees and even dead ones, but one tree-hunting trip stands out as extra-excruciating.

“We grabbed our drive-thru hot chocolates and made the half-hour road trip,” Steve remembers. “The drive included one kid turning into Hulk because Mom sang ‘Let it Go.’ Another (kid) parroted Dad’s swearing at a driver who was unaware of their surroundings. And another spilt his hot chocolate all over his photo outfit.”

The Nuzums eventually arrived, as always, and headed for the blue spruce section — their favorite.

“By this point, three of the four had cried on the drive,” Steve says.

The bevy of tears and snot were admittedly less than eye-pleasing for the annual family photos, but Nuzum chalks it up as just being part of the experience.

As the family perused the trees, the boys didn’t seem to have a preference as to which tree was picked, until…

“Until one of the others made a selection,” Nuzum says. “Then they all had a negative critique of that particular tree.”

Ultimately, the gang found the right fit, just as they always do.

“The perfect tree just appears,” says Nuzum, before begrudgingly adding, “probably the first one we saw.”

Every trip is an adventure with its own set of problems and complaints.

“We don’t sugarcoat or fabricate some amazing Hallmark family memory,” Nuzum says. “Getting in the car and dealing with it is half the fun.”

But the party isn’t over once the tree arrives at home. That’s when the real fun begins.

“Everyone decorates it,” says Steve. “But, don’t get me started on that.”


Sometimes the best-designed plans weren’t actually part of the plan. As a child, Michelle Eggleston always had a fake tree.

Siblings Nate and Michelle Eggleston have helped bring home the perfect Christmas tree for more than 20 years.

“You pulled it out of the box, and you bent the wire arms back into place, threw some ugly tinsel on it, and you went with it,” she says.

But in September of 1995, Eggleston’s husband unexpectedly surprised her with a freshly cut, authentic Christmas tree. The next year, the family doubled down on the spur-of-the-moment decision, and the Egglestons — Mom, Dad and baby Nate — went back to the tree farm to do it again. By year three, the crew had added a baby girl named Rachel, and there was no looking back. This had become a full-blown Eggleston family tradition.

Priceless Eggleston family memories have been created at the tree farm, including Nate’s first known curse word. As a 3-year-old, after nearly escaping the falling tree his dad cut down, Nate looked suspiciously at the evergreen, and with his elbows tucked to his sides and palms to the sky, the boy asked the obvious: “What the hell are we going to do with that?” Apparently he hadn’t yet grown an appreciation for the majesty of a freshly cut pine, but he would.
Year after year, the Egglestons bundled up and sipped on hot chocolates while mulling their seasonal selection. A wide variety of trees exists each season, and Michelle estimates the prices range from $40 up to $100. The tree picking is technically a group decision but …

“My daughter is kind of militant about the tree,” Michelle says. “It feels like every year Rachel drags us around three to four acres of Christmas trees to the farthest point on the farm to find the perfect tree. We give her a bad time because it always feels like we never pick the tree close to the house. Pretty soon it’s like you don’t even know what trees we’ve looked at and what ones we haven’t.”

The family eventually wised up and solved this issue. Instead of starting at the front and finding a tree in the back, now they start in back and work their way inward.

The tradition continued, even after Michelle and her husband eventually divorced. At the kids’ insistence, Michelle, Rachel and Nate kept up the annual excursion.

“They still wanted to do it,” she says. “We still go to that same tree farm. We go every year.”

After two decades, the tradition almost ended due to Nate’s active duty in the Army. He was serving in Germany and wouldn’t arrive in Iowa until it was nearly Christmas.

“We waited until we knew he would be home,” Michelle says. “And my daughter and my son went out, and we still followed that tradition.”


In the initial year of matrimony, most newlyweds must reach consensus as to one crucial question: What kind of Christmas tree family will we be? Will we join the more than 80 million American families owning artificial trees, or will we become one of the 20 million who go for the real thing?

A cat had chewed through the electrical cord of the artificial, pre-lit Christmas tree owned by Torrance Chambers, thus he and his new bride, Nikki, decided to brave the frozen weather on the first day after Thanksgiving and go get the real thing.

Six years later, the couple is now seasoned at the art of selection. They are thankful that reservations are now possible at most tree farms. Customers pre-tag their preferred tree during the warmer months and then return to cut it down later.

“We usually go and cut it down the first day after Thanksgiving,” says Nikki.

Nikki and Torrance Chambers have made a family tradition of decorating a real Christmas tree each year and taking family photos.

The Chambers advise rookie selectors to look for a “whole tree,” meaning one that isn’t missing needles or that has a bald spot. Michelle also likes to have one that is shaped well. But keeping track of which one is “best so far,” while searching for another? It’s like looking for a Christmas tree within a stack of Christmas trees.

“We have spent a lot of time looking,” she says, noting that tree farms can cover large areas.

The family initially snapped photos of the trees under consideration for selection, but that became confusing. They’d often lose track of which photo was of which tree, or where the tree in the photo was located. Instead, they now station a family member at a preferred tree until a better option is found — the person is moved to mark a new favorite tree as necessary.

After cutting down their tree, the Chambers take it home and decorate that night. The smell is the best part, according to Nikki.

Needles are the worst part, the Chambers agree. And if you have cats or dogs, as they do, they’ll be attracted to the pine-flavored water bowl positioned at the base of the stump — real trees, even once cut, need water in order to stay fresher for longer.

“We always do pictures next to the Christmas tree,” Nikki says. She adds that it has become a tradition that she plans on keeping.

“Yes. Absolutely,” she says. “As long as we can get up and cut them down.” ♦


Worldwide, the Christian Christmas tree tradition started in Germany — according to
• During the 16th century, Christians started bringing decorated trees into their homes.
• Martin Luther is generally thought to be the brains behind adding lights as ornaments. The 16th-century Protestant reformer, as the story goes, was out walking at night when he was inspired by the winter stars shining behind a forest of evergreens. He erected a tree in his home and wired its branches with lit candles (this is not recommended).
• Americans were slow to start the Christmas tree tradition. The first known records date the practice to early German settlers in the 1830s — although it’s believed German community trees existed as early as 1747.
• The practice didn’t gain popularity in America until an 1846 issue of Illustrated London News showed the popular Queen Victoria and German Prince Albert sketched with their children around a Christmas tree.

GENERAL HISTORY (dates are approximate)
1850: The commercial sale of live Christmas trees began in the United States.
1890: Fake Christmas trees were initiated in Germany in the 19th century. The Germans used dyed-green goose feathers and attached them to wire branches hanging from a central rod.
1930: Addis Brush Company made the first fake Christmas tree consisting of brush bristles with the same machinery used to manufacture toilet brushes.
1958: Artificial Christmas trees made largely from aluminum were manufactured in the United States, first in Chicago. Currently, the majority of Christmas trees consist primarily of PVC plastic that is fire-retardant but not fire-resistant.
1882: Thomas Edison might have masterminded the light bulb, but it was his assistant, Edward Johnson in 1882, who first had the bright idea to put electric lights on Christmas trees.
Approximately 80 percent of artificial trees are made in China.

1856: Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, became the first President with a Christmas tree in the White House. Teddy Roosevelt banned the practice during his tenure for environmental reasons.
1923: President Calvin Coolidge began the national tree-lighting ceremony on the White House lawn. ♦


Each year, fire departments nationally respond to a national average of 210 structure fires caused by Christmas trees. Carefully decorating Christmas trees can help make your holidays safer.
Picking the tree
• If you have an artificial tree, be sure it is labeled, certified or identified by the manufacturer as fire retardant.
• When choosing a real tree, get one with fresh, green needles that do not fall off when touched.
Placing the tree
• Before placing the tree in its stand, cut 1-2 inches from the trunk’s base.
• Make sure the tree is at least 3 feet away from any source of heat.
• Do not stand a tree in front of an exit.
• Water your tree daily.
Lighting the tree
• Use lights that have the label of an independent testing laboratory. Some lights are only for indoor or outdoor use, but not both.
• Replace any string of lights with worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections. Connect no more than three strands of mini string sets and a maximum of 50 bulbs for screw-in bulbs. Read manufacturer’s instructions for number of LED strands to connect.
• Never use lit candles to decorate the tree.
• Always turn off Christmas tree lights before leaving home or going to bed.
Source: City of Des Moines Fire Department
After Christmas
• Take down the tree when it begins dropping needles. Dried-out trees are a fire hazard and should not be left in the home, garage or placed outside against the home.
• Within the City of Des Moines, Christmas trees can be placed out for collection on your curb and will be picked up on your regular garbage collection day and taken to the City’s composting center. Trees must be free of ornaments and tinsel and must not be in bags. The trees must have a Green $1.20 Compost It! sticker attached.
• According to Leslie Irlbeck of the Metro Waste Authority, residents who live in Altoona, Bondurant, Carlisle, Clive, Grimes, Johnston, Mitchellville, Norwalk, Pleasant Hill, Polk City, Urbandale, West Des Moines and Windsor Heights can purchase a green Compost It! sticker and adhere it to the tree for curbside collection. For most, collection occurs on the same day as their garbage day and must be at the curb by 7 a.m. Winter collection runs Jan. 2-12. This is not only a chance for tree collection, but also a last chance to get all yard waste collected from the curb that’s in a Compost It! cart or bag, or in a generic bag with a Compost It! sticker. If a resident lives in a community that does not participate in the Compost It! program, they should call their garbage hauler for disposal instructions.
• Trees that are collected from the curb are taken to the Metro Compost Center. At this site, staff grind the trees and process the material with all other yard waste. The material is turned into compost, which is a soil amendment for lawns and gardens, which is an alternative to hazardous chemicals.
• Residents should make sure trees are free from plastic bags, stands, decorations and lights before placing it at the curb or they will not be collected, since the goal is to make a natural material. Wreaths are also not accepted for this same reason. ♦


Which tree to take home is a make-or-break holiday decision. Choose wisely with the help of these tips.
• Has the tree been cared for on the way to its current destination? Look for broken limbs or other damage.
• Do you see any tree insects or other pests? It’s best to avoid bringing them into your home.
• Avoid a tree that is dirty or already “decorated” with other debris.
• If buying a natural tree, be sure watering it isn’t a problem. And be wary of getting hardwood floors and carpeting wet.
• If the Christmas tree dealer doesn’t accept credit cards, it may be a sign the trees are leftovers near the end of their beauty.
• Artificial Christmas trees do cost more, but proponents say it is an investment. A quality tree will often last 20 years or more.
• A high number of branches and needles will make the tree appear fuller. If you can easily see through the tree to the pole, it may not be dense enough. Note: Some high-quality brands do design trees to have a visible trunk if the center contains an authentic looking tree trunk.
• A tree equipped with a sturdy stand will stabilize the tree, thus diminishing the odds it will lean over or fall, and it will support heavier ornaments.
• If you have wooden floors, look for a stand equipped with rubber feet to prevent scuffs and scratches.
• Trees with hinged branches allow easier setup and storage.


• Go early if the lot allows you to make reservations. The selection will be better, and you will benefit from warmer weather.
• Don’t pick a tree at the back of the lot. You will have to drag it all the way to the front to purchase it.
• Scotch pines are generally less expensive, but they are also pricklier than other varieties.
• Don’t use the same decorations every year. Enjoy a variety.
• Breathe deep and savor the sweet smell of the outdoors, but be wary if you have pets, as they like drinking the water.
• Take pictures with your family around the newly decorated tree.
• The search for the perfect tree begins with the farm lending a handsaw and a rug. After the selection is made, cutting the tree down doesn’t take long, according to Torrance. After cutting it down, you drag the tree back to the front where it is shaken and loaded into the vehicle, then you pay for it and take it home. ♦


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