"OK, I think I got what we need. Is Mom and your sister ready?" Soon after John and Mary piled into the family minivan with the Smith children in search of the perfect Christmas tree. There were a number of lots in their area and knowing Dad, he would want to visit most at least once.
Like a boy scout leader readying his troops, John announced the battle plan. "I figure we need a tree that's about 7 feet high and about 3 feet in diameter. If we're going to use all those ornaments that Grandma sent us we'll need to find a tree that's not too full."
"Dad, we should look at Frazier firs then. I read that their limbs are strong so that they hold ornaments well." John was happily surprised that his daughter was getting into the family tradition. "We'll see sweetheart. Frazier's sure smell good and hold their needles, but sometimes they're kinda expensive."
Mary joined the discussion. "Look gang, I've checked our finances and we probably should try to stay on the less expensive side. I don't want to be paying off our Christmas tree next April!"
"Then that means we should consider a pine tree. They're cheaper. Those long needles look Christmas cool, too!" Junior was at that age where it was important for the family to know that he had valid opinions.
They fanned out as they searched the first tree lot. John lifts a couple of trees and drops them from a height of about six inches. "Just seeing how many needles fall off. The more that fall the drier the tree is." Mary, too, knows the tricks to finding a fresh tree. She bends some needles to see if they break. A fresh needle from a fir or spruce tree will break like a piece of celery. Only very dry pine needles will break. Mary also grasps a branch and pulls toward her. She notices whether the needles spring back to their original position.
After a few lots the Smiths select a tree. The lot attendant offers to put a 'fresh cut' on the tree trunk. John turns him down. Junior asks why. "I just want to do it right before we put the tree in the stand. You do want to cut the trunk, but you need to get that cut into water as soon as possible."
When they get home the Smiths are careful to store the tree in a cool shaded area. John cuts the trunk on a diagonal and puts it in a bucket. Occasionally one of the family will even 'mist' the tree to help keep it fresh.
The big moment arrives. "Dad, why is the tree stand so big?" John explains that a stand is like a glass of water for the tree. A minimum of one gallon is needed to satisfy the thirst of an average home tree. "Junior, you'll be responsible for making sure that the tree stand never goes dry. That means checking it every day. If the stand's empty the tree will put out pitch to cover the cut. Then even if more water is added to the stand, the tree can't drink. The only way to solve it is to put a new cut on the bottom of the tree. And with it all decorated, I don't even want to think about that!"
The Smiths are careful that the tree is well supported and away from heat sources. They always remember to turn off tree lights when no one is home.
"Hey Hon, every year we wonder what we should add to the water in the stand. Did you have time to try to find out what's best?" Mary listened to John's question as she entered the room with a big bowl of popcorn. "You know what's the best thing to add to the water? More water! I found that a researcher at Washington State University found that plain old tap water is the best thing to give your tree."
"I found some other interesting stuff, too. Did you know that in ancient Egypt people would bring a green palm branch into their homes during winter to symbolize life. They did that long before Christmas was celebrated. In fact, there's no reference to a Christmas tree until the 1500's. In Europe older women would cut down trees and sell them in the city. Those were the first Christmas tree lots!"
Junior turned off the room lights. The Smiths gathered in the living room and enjoyed the twinkle of the tree lights. Grandma's ornaments brought back childhood memories for Mary. And in the background a song could be heard, "It's the most wonderful time of the year..."
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report and he's a regular contributor to US News Money and CreditCards.com. You can follow Gary on Twitter or visit Gary Foreman on Google+.
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