New Orleans Christmas Tree Memories
Every family with a Christmas tree has its share of Christmas tree stories. But first, you have to find that tree.
Professional forester Adrian Juttner was a leader of an Explorer Scout Troop at the First Unitarian Church when he came up with a fundraising idea that lasted for years: selling Christmas trees. “The first year we took my truck up to Floyd, Va., where I knew a man with Christmas trees. I cut them with a chain saw, the kids loaded the truck and we’d sell them at the church – they’d get 20 percent of whatever we made, and use it for Scout trips.” Today the troop is gone, but the church still has its own tree sales.
Jack White had a brief career in Christmas trees. “My mother passed away, leaving my brother Hunter and me a home in New Hampshire with a Christmas tree farm on the back side.” It wasn’t a profitable operation: “The bill for cutting the trees was $100 more than the tree sales.”
The White children were at Metairie Park Country Day School, so the trees presented a fundraising opportunity. “We cut all we could, we brought them all down here and sold them at the school – it was a lot of fun. And, we made $25,000 – the money went to redo the football field and buy some computers.” Profits went down the next year when some trees were purchased to fill up the truck. After that?
“Well, the Christmas tree farm was gone. We had cut all the trees down.”
Christmas tree choices might change with the years. “Michael is Jewish and I’m Catholic, so I was the Christmas tree girl,” Peggy Nius says about her deal with her husband.
When the kids grew up, the Nius tree disappeared. “Now, I decorate houseplants with lights: one year we used a ficus tree,” Peggy says. The tradition of trees does continue: “My daughter lives here and periodically she’ll come and raid my old boxes of ornaments. My son lives in Charleston and he decorates a palm tree.”
Cheryl Johnson’s tree memories don’t involve evergreens. “After the house was completely cleaned from top to bottom, the box, which contained the tree, was removed from the attic. In addition to the three-part center pole, there were 50 or so silver limbs stored in individual paper sleeves.”
“We would place each limb into the pole (which contained small holes) until completed. In the end, there stood a tall silver Christmas tree,” Johnson says. “My mom would change the ornaments from year to year, but with only a single color. Finally, there was the color wheel, which rotated all night and made that silver tree sparkle.”
Children’s holiday memories often involve a Christmas tree. Mary Lee Burke remembers that, “my parents put up the tree on Christmas Eve, and we didn’t know it was there until Christmas morning. I was 3, and elected myself ladder climber to put an ornament on, way up high.” It wasn’t a wise choice.
“Of course I slipped off the ladder, then grabbed the tree. I had an easy descent, but then the whole tree was on the ground,” she remembers.
“I immediately burst into tears so nobody would be mad, but my mother was too smart for me. She just looked at me and said, ‘Stop crying, you’re not hurt.’
“And I stopped.”
The young married couple with a Christmas tree can be a heart-warming story. In Karen Perschall’s case, “I was a young woman recreating all of my fantasies. I dragged my husband around looking for the perfect, large tree, and I got it.”
The Perschall home wasn’t large, but the ceiling in the living room reached 12 feet. “We got the tree in, but we had to take three feet off the top. Then the branches touched all the walls. We finally cut it in half; pushed it against a wall. We had it almost decorated, and our cats climbed up and knocked it over.”
After the tree fell over for the third time, “my husband went out, he got four inch nails and he nailed the tree and the stand to the floor. He said ‘It will not fall again.’”
“He was correct. It took three people to dig it out later.”
But the ultimate New Orleans Christmas tree story might just be one that echoes the past.
Ann Masson, architectural historian, and her late husband Frank had an annual party. From her work as director of Gallier House she had become an expert on historic Christmas customs.
“I decided to do a tree with candles on it. I decorated with all the traditional things I could find; I wrapped presents and put them in the boughs of the tree. Then I lighted the candles.”
As she remembered, “It was truly beautiful, the tree in candlelight, in the dark house. Everybody clapped.”
But, a few minutes later, “I was standing alone near the tree when all of a sudden I smelled something. A candle had caught a branch.
“I had read in these 19th century housekeeping books that you were to stand by with a bucket of water and a sponge tied to a stick,” she continues. “And, I had set that up, just like I had at Gallier House.” She acted quickly. “Lo and behold, I had to reach down into the bucket and throw handfuls of water. Luckily the tree was really fresh and I got it put out.”
“A little while later Frank walked by and said, ‘I guess you got by on the tree OK … except for that little burned place.’”
A Cut Above
Buy your tree and do a good deed! Shop at these annual charitable locations: First Unitarian Church on South Claiborne Avenue at Jefferson Avenue will be stocked with trees, and the annual sale begins the weekend following Thanksgiving. Holy Name of Jesus School at 6325 Cromwell Place at Calhoun Street has a Christmas tree sale the first weekend in December. Assistant Principal Marnie Woynowski says that brownies, hot chocolate and scented candles will also be available. Trinity Episcopal School at Jackson Avenue at Chestnut Street takes early orders for evergreen garlands and wreaths, but there are always a few extras available from Dec. 2 through 6.