Help! My 2020 Christmas Tree Ethics Dilemma


It’s always something, as Rosanne Rosannadanna used to say.

The Virginia Marshalls joined two families with intense Christmas traditions, centered on elaborately decorated Christmas trees. The Marshalls of Massachusetts collected ornaments and antique tinsel, and their trees really shined with the lights off. When on, the Christmas tree lights were the old-fashioned large bulbs, and muli-colored. The Bowens, of the Washington, D.C. area, in contrast, were lights-obsessed. Every Christmas season, Mrs, Bowen decorated a large, very realistic artificial tree with thousands of small white lights. For 40 years, our household has maintained a hybrid tradition: real trees, thousands of small, multicolored lights, hundreds of ornaments of all sizes, themes and ages, and no tinsel.Our trees must be at least eight feet high, with strong branches and tough needles. Most of our trees have been Frasier Firs, with an occasional Douglas Fir or Noble Fir; twice, when I was in a masochistic mood, we used Blue Spruce trees, and I was nearly prickled to death.

In recent years, we’ve let our next door neighbor of the full 40 years pick out our tree. (I recently wrote about Red and Beth here.) He has sold Christmas trees for his church all that time, and he knows what we need and like—or always has in the past. But yesterday he left leaning against our house some kind of pine with long needles, soft branches: the furthest thing from a fir tree imaginable. It is, my wife thinks, the same kind of tree his wife Beth likes, but it won’t work with the traditional Marshall decorations. My wife is upset, and I’m not thrilled either: I have to put on the lights, and I don’t see how this tree will hold the usual number of strings.

I called Red, and thanked him convincingly, asking what he was charging this year. As usual, it’s about half what we would have to pay anywhere else. I asked, hinting that we might have two trees this year, if he had any Frasier Firs on the lot. “Don’t have any trees at all, now!,’ he said. “Sold out in just two days!” Then he told me to let him know when we were going to set up the tree, because it’s so heavy, and because he always slices off the bottom of the trunks of the trees he gets us. Grace thinks he may have forgotten what kind of tree we always have; after all, Red just turned 80.

Now what?

The options we’re come up with so far:

  • Give the tree to my son and his girlfriend as a gift, and buy a the right kind of tree for ourselves. Downsides: 1) the kids were going to finally help with decorating out tree this year, and a separate tree relegates them to their own apartment. 2) That’s an extra $200 down the drain.
  • Tell Red we’re very grateful, but it was the wrong kind of tree, and we’re not going to use it, but we’ll pay for it. Downside: Knowing him, he won’t accept payment, and his feelings will be hurt.
  • Go full sitcom: have him set up the tree, then secretly replace it, give his tree away or dump it, and spend the holidays making sure he and his wife never see our real tree. Downsides: 1) That extra $200; 2) It involves lying, and 3) I’ve seen enough “I Love Lucy” and “Frasier” episodes to know these schemes never work.
  • Suck it up and do our best to make the tree Red got for us work, and just accept the hassle and the disappointment, because in the end, people and relationships are more important than traditions and Christmas trees.

Never mind.

I know what you’re all going to say…

43 thoughts on “Help! My 2020 Christmas Tree Ethics Dilemma

  1. If “I know what you’re all going to say” means “Regardless of what tree I ultimately use I’m gonna piss and moan about the process of setting it up and tearing it down because it makes me bleed and it’s all over too quickly, and I do it every year…” then yeah – you pretty much do.

    PS – $200 for a tree? Wow. You live a lot closer to where most of ’em are grown than I do, and good ones around here cost a third of that.

    PPS – Merriest of Christmases to you, your bride, your son and his S.O., and to Spuds, who may just have his first real, wonderful family Christmas.

    PPPS: I’ll keep pestering your for more pix of Spuds, here or on Facebook, until one shows up.

    • On a re-read this morning, my post reads far snottier than intended. In fact, it wasn’t intended to be snotty at all. I actually look forward to the yearly description of your Travails with the Tree.

      My apologies.

  2. Spare his feelings if you can. It might be as trees are sold out it was what he had available and was hoping against all hope you would be happy with it. Relationships are more important most irritations. Avoid sitcom scenario as it does not bode well, as physical comedy will ensue with any other tree as well. This means choices 1or 4. and if you choose 1 see if the kids will help anyway. Love to Grace and Grant and of course you. Miss you all.

  3. You could get some scissors and trim all the needles to be shorter.

    I would go with option 4. It seems most in keeping with the Christmas spirit.

  4. Somehow, this has been the year for plans to go awry, no matter how well-considered or simple they seemed. Every one of us has had similar incidents, where even the most reasonable of expectations have failed to materialize. The tree is almost symbolic of this year of things that weren’t really what they should have been.

    Based on that, in your shoes I would try to remember how much God has blessed me and how happy I am to have a loving wife, happy and successful children and other family members, and a pleasant neighbor (despite his wife’s taste in trees). I would consider that despite the many challenges and disappointments of this screwy year, I still have a lot to appreciate, including a tree that is big and beautiful, even if it isn’t quite what the doctor ordered.

    (I’ve sometimes found that trees with softer boughs can work for more and heavier ornaments if you set them up a bit on a box or pedestal, so the branches can sag a few more inches.)

    • MY wife suggested that wire or twine might be used to support the branches, tying each to ones above far enough in to not be noticeable.

  5. “Suck it up and do our best to make the tree Red got for us work, and just accept the hassle and the disappointment, because in the end, people and relationships are more important than traditions and Christmas trees.”

    And have a casual conversation with him about what kind of tree it is, that you’re curious to know because you aren’t good at identifying them. Eventually the topic would come up about differences between what you had last year versus what you have now and it may just come up that he remembers the exact species from last year and does actually have a source for those still.

    And instead of it being a let-down conversation it’s just a conversation about horticulture.

  6. My family had the same 6-ft fake tree through my entire childhood; the kind with vertical sections that hang from the top and hook to a hoop at the bottom. You slide a section of fake plastic trunk onto the part below the branches to simulate wood. We put colored lights and that dollar store tinsel on it, and all I remember was how much I loved everything about it. Since inside was just empty space, you could lie down and look up into the tree from below, and see the lights from the inside. My entire childhood was seriously dysfunctional but somehow I retain only 100% positive feelings and memories about Christmas. It’s like having a movie with all the unpleasant parts edited out.

    Since having a real tree was never a tradition for me, it just looks like unnecessary work. But for those of you who grew up picking out a tree with your folks, it must be a wonderful time.

    Mr. Marshall, if you decide to suck it up and go Charlie Brown with that pine tree, I hope it makes for a memorable and unique Christmas that you will talk and joke about for years to come. Or do the sitcom thing, that would be funny too.

    • In my family, growing up, we used live trees exclusively. And it was almost consistently always an Eastern Red Cedar because those things grew like weeds on my grandparent’s southern Oklahoma spread.

      They were pokey and messy and by high school my parents switched to artificial and never looked back. We do artificial and decorating the tree is usually a multi-day ritual. We have one with a central post or “trunk” and individual branches are affixed and spread apart to give the tree a uniform mass. My overly calculating self has determined how many lights must be on each layer (which obviously decreases in size as you go up) and we meticulously make sure a solid base layer of cool and warm white lights is present. Simultaneously we add a subtle amount of multi-color and then about twice that in blue lights…but the white lights are the dominant strands.

      It may seem overboard but we average about 1500 lights on the 7 foot tree. And it ties the room together in the appropriate holiday mood with it’s yuletide GLOW.

      The children help a bit with that effort, but the 2nd phase of the ritual, which usually occurs on evening two of our decorating is really the full family event.

      We don’t decorate with balls and tinsel and other merely artistic choices…those are minorly present…but the mainstay of the tree…99% of the decorations are all family memory ornaments…many from my childhood that my parents gave me and many from my wife’s childhood. Many from and for our children and quite a few that represent events in life: births, activities, vacations (we always buy one or two ornaments per vacation).

      In this way decorating the tree with the whole family is a kind of review of the past year and a summation of our life as we recall and chat about the various memories.

      But to the live versus artificial tree…for us the tree is the motley mess of family memories joyfully illuminated by Griswold levels of lighting…so barring a well-made argument by anyone that a live tree is more in tune with Christmas spirit than an artificial…I don’t think we’ll do live anytime soon.

  7. Duty to confront!
    Sort of kidding, but:
    He needs to be informed politely it is the wrong sort of tree.
    He may have a good solution – maybe he gave someone else ‘your’ tree by mistake. You need to find out by levelling with him.

  8. Since you’ve let him pick out your tree for several years and he knows what you like, suck it up for this year and use that tree, or go with two trees. Then, for the future, resume picking out your own tree. The trappings are less important than the spirit of the holiday.

  9. Use the tree. Have Red over for dinner. Tell funny stories about tree-family drama. Then inject a question to determine why your type was not delivered as is usual. If Red is going down to the bottom of the hill, then you have loved your neighbor doubly, and you can get your tree on your own next year if you like.

  10. I know you said you’ve gotten the same kind of tree for years but did you actually confirm with your 80 year old neighbor what kind of tree you wanted this year?

    1. Use the tree as is.

    2. Try something different for tree decorations, go minimalist in tree decorations this year. For the last few years my wife and I have gone minimalist and we really like it now. We switched to using light weight miniature LED lights, all white, and the only decorations we put on the tree are a few small Christmas stuffed animals stuffed into the branches and some large Christmas stuffed animals under the tree intermixed with the gifts, the grand kids LOVE it!

    3. Learn from this year’s mistake and make absolutely sure that at the beginning of November 2021 that Red knows, in writing so he doesn’t forget, the kind of tree that you want and explain to Red that if they don’t have the kind of tree at the church lot that you want then you’ll get your tree elsewhere.

    • P.S. We’ve got a LOT of tree decorations, so we’ll switch up the tree decorations after the grand kids are all school age so they’ll have “new” decorations to see every year, integrate a few different ones every year. The large Christmas stuffed animals under the tree and Woodstock in the tree are permanent.

  11. Maybe Red sussed out your passive non-agreement described in the Nov 21 post and intuited to just stick it to you a little. I’ve seen 50 year friendships break apart withTDS (you know, Trump derangement). Maybe this says more about me as cynic. Hope not. As for the tree, suck it up. Donate the tree to a church two towns over (maybe 1ten towns over where they’re less tahn 200 clams), and buy the one you want. You won’t be happy otherwise. Keep Red away for the holidays (may not be a problem, you Trump lover). Oh, and Merry Christmas.

  12. Haven’t put up a tree of my own for over 2 decades, and haven’t missed it. I’m a single man who can’t be bothered setting up and decorating a tree all by himself that no one will see and that he’s just going to have to take down all by himself. No tree, no Nativity scene, no lights in the window, no wreath, no fuss.

    • We aren’t putting up a tree this year because we had to rearrange the living room due to my wife’s recent double knee replacement surgery and she has to use a walker to get around. The spot where the tree usually goes is now occupied with a coffee table that had to be moved out of the way so she could get to the sofa. There are still plenty of other Christmas decorations to look at and the Christmas stuffed animals are still all over the place. It’s not likely that any of our grandkids will be coming to our house this year for Christmas anyway, new grandbabies mean hauling more baby “stuff”, so we’ll go to their houses this year.

    • Steve-O-in-NJ wrote, “I’m a single man who can’t be bothered setting up and decorating a tree all by himself that no one will see and that he’s just going to have to take down all by himself. No tree, no Nativity scene, no lights in the window, no wreath, no fuss.”

      I completely disagree with this. No one says you “need” a tree or lots of elaborate decorations but do something simple to bring a bit of that Christmas cheer into your home, you’d be surprised the difference that simple things can do to help the psyche at this time of year.

      • My psyche has had it. 2018 I battled depression and it almost destroyed me. 2019 my team at work was gutted as three people quit, leaving the three of us who remained to pick up the slack, and then the powers that be hired only newbies, so we couldn’t punt any of this increased workload away or just get some help with it. This year every plan I had to do anything that makes life worth living has been canceled by the pandemic, and there’s no realistic end in sight. When you find yourself posting deliberately bleak photos and quoting the Book of Ecclesiastes, you know you’re pretty far gone. I’d never do deliberate harm to myself, but if I was to go to sleep and not wake up, I wouldn’t be too sorry. I am 50 and conscious that there are at best probably 2 days ahead for every 5 there are behind. I can’t do 20 or even 10 more years of just working and paying bills.

        • Steve,
          Since you’re a single man, have you considered simplifying your life a bit by downsizing and changing jobs to something that’s less stressful? Getting back to the basics of a more simplified life has helped a couple of my friends that have gone through similar experiences with depression and work stress, one of which has moderate PTSD after four years of infantry combat between Iraq and Afghanistan and walked into a high stress job after retiring from the Army.

          Only you and your financial advisor can know if a life change like this is possible or even reasonable for your life.

          Peace Steve.

          • P.S. My stress relievers are playing my guitars (which I can’t do right now due to some hand problems), riding my motorcycle through the countryside and actively using my brain for writing whether it’s my blog or commenting on the internet.

    • I was of the same mind. 2020 has been horrible all around. My wife, though, proved she is a much better person than I deserve. She maintained that, yes 2020 has been awful, but decorating the house could be an act of defiance against cynicism and negativity. She was determined not to let The Bastard win. Therefore, we got a tree, she decorated it extra beautifully and I hung the lights outside, without falling off rhe roof and breaking a single bone.


  13. We tried a blue spruce exactly once. It looked great… but we were hurting ourselves for months from dropped needles the vaccum cleaner somehow missed. Those needles are painful. I liked the somewhat sparse firs (I think?) with softer needles, largely because as a child we always bought the cheap trees, but they really don’t hold heavy ornaments well.

    We have switched to a fake tree with built in colored lights, which we then decorate with ornaments. It usually is up for about a month and a half.

  14. A Christmas tradition in Mrs. OB’s and my family until our kids went off to college: All four of us would go out together to a tree lot (long since a high rise office and hotel project in Phoenix) to pick our tree. Our daughter and son each had specific preferences as to which kind of tree they wanted. I think one wanted bushy and the other wanted less bushy and more horizontal branches. They’d each run off to find their favorite and then stand next to their respective choices, usually in different parts of the lot. At some point, our daughter said to our two years younger son, “You got to pick last year,” thereby carrying the day. Resigned to his fate, our son slumped his shoulders and went with the flow. (He’s always been a big picture guy, rather than a detail guy.) Next year, and almost every year thereafter, our daughter would make the same play, successfully. Eventually, we either called a halt to the gag or our son caught on, I forget which. They’re both in their mid-forties and have little families of their own.

  15. Red is old enough and I’m sure mature enough to hear that you don’t love the tree. Part of community is meeting people where they are while being true to your traditions and goals.

    Simply put, the current tree doesn’t work for your needs in terms of ornaments, lights, etc. That’s not rude, it’s a fact.

  16. I haven’t cut my own tree for almost 50 years but did so yesterday. it’s leaning against the wall as we figure out how to shoehorn it into the stand from the fake tree we have used the past few years. Cost about US$30 for a nine footer in great shape.

    My father (also Jack, BTW) preferred the pine variety that you got from Red, Jack. To each their own. He said they smelled better. Funny as he lost his sense of smell in an accident long before I was born, but like many things at this time of year, it is all about personal traditions and fond memories. Who remembers the year it caught on fire? Just kidding.

    So, given our ages and the present stages, don’t settle for a tree you don’t like. I am hopeful it won’t actually cost you as much as you said to get a replacement but so be it. On your own admission, you have had the benefit of less expensive trees for a long time!

    I am sure that many of the suggestions here could be put to good use as to how to work into a nice conversations with Red that pine trees and the Marshalls don’t mix well this time of year and that you are thankful that your many years of friendship allows you to be candid without being offensive.

  17. Call it your 2020 tree. What else can go wrong this year? Take pictures of it for future reference. Tell stories about it. Laugh about it. And give Red a big Christmas hug. Next year, a few days before the church sale, tell Red that you are looking for a fir and only a fir. Otherwise, I can’t imagine enjoying a different tree knowing full well that you lied or hurt another person’s feelings in the process.

  18. I thought about this post and the duty to confront. I think the appropriate action is accept Red’s tree as given in good faith. Nothing from this post or the prior one indicates that he is being malicious or vindictive. He gave you a tree he thought you wanted. If he was mistaken, then that is that. Put up the tree, suffer the slings and arrows of those mindbogglngly sharp needles and enjoy it.

    We actually have a dilemma every year when it comes to trees. My wife’s aunt buys her trees from her neighbor who gets his trees at a discount because he is deaf (I have no idea why – it way beyond my limited ability to understand the world) who then marks them up for a profit. But, his trees are dead. Not just cut too many days ago and are drying up. They are fire hazards. We bought one a few years back and within two weeks, the needles had fallen off and the water in the stand began to smell. The branches broke on contact. So, this year my wife wondered if we should buy another from him, you know, to help him out. I, in one of my few moments to prescience, suggested we check prices at Houston Garden and see if they are more expensive. As luck would have it, they were $10 bucks cheaper than that other guy’s trees so we bought one of them. Our homeowner’s insurance company breathed a sigh of relief.


      • I don’t know what Razor it would be but it would seem to me, without more information, that, as a general rule, one should confer good faith and good intentions on the gifter’s motivations. The gracious thing is to be thankful and move on. Most people don’t give gifts with hidden motives or messages.

        There are exceptions to that rule, though, and I don’t know how to handle that situation. Case in point: My older brother recently visited us and left with the impression that I am a jaded, cynical Goosestepping Right-Wing Nazi Loving Fascist. So, he sent two books to me for my birthday: Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and John irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. I am absolutely certain that the message behind both books is: “Repent from my conservative, mortgage banking representing ways, embrace the virtuous disenfranchised, and make fast the Way of Peace through Joe Biden.”


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