A Christmas story

This year’s Michigan State Christmas tree is shown at the home of Alex Stevens, where it was harvested before making the nine-hour trip downstate to stand in front of the Capitol building. (Photo courtesy of Alex Stevens)

By Noah Hausmann

Its needled boughs twinkle with dazzling lights as it stands poised and conical before the ivory dome of Michigan’s Capitol building. It’s traveled far, some 400 miles from one peninsula to another. If it could, it should be proud. Not just any evergreen can become the official state Christmas tree and preside over downtown Lansing’s holiday festivities.

This year, a spruce tree from Stephenson in Menominee County gets that honor as Michigan’s 32nd official Christmas tree. The tree, which is about 60 feet tall, was donated by William Winter and his grandson Alex Stevens. This marks the 23rd time the official tree has been selected from the Upper Peninsula.

Though it stands all season long in front of the Capitol for onlookers to enjoy, the tree’s big day of fanfare is the lighting ceremony during the November 17 annual “Silver Bells in the City” extravaganza, along with a parade of floats, marching bands and fireworks.

“It’s important because it brings the whole city of Lansing together for a big celebration… It’s good because people come from all over just to see it. It’s a celebration that everyone expects now, almost like a kickoff for Christmas,” said Heath Miller, a member of the team that selects the tree each year.

Staff from Michigan’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) handle the selection process and work with the Michigan Association of Timbermen and Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association to bring the favored tree to Lansing. This year’s tree was harvested October 26 and delivered to Lansing on October 28.

The selection crew from the DTMB is usually only two, sometimes three, members. Miller has been on it for several years. This task is in addition to his normal job as a building trade supervisor at the DTMB Energy Center, and though the extra responsibility is demanding, the experience is also a special opportunity, Miller said.

“There’s a lot behind the scenes that nobody knows about, really,” he said. “You have to have the desire to do it because otherwise you’re not going to do a good job at it and it’s not going to work. The flip side of that is it’s a super cool thing to be able to say you’re part of the two-man crew that picked the state Christmas tree for the year.

“It’s a lot of reward, but it’s a lot of work,” he added.

The hunt for which tree would receive the honor began months ago, around July 1, when Michiganders were asked in a press release to be on the lookout for a worthy conifer and send in their nominations. There was a total of about 28 nominations, Miller said.

It’s Miller and the team’s job to drive around the state, inspect each nomination, and ultimately select the one tree they think is best suited for the role. In the past, trees have come from both private and public land.

The crew has specific qualifications they’re looking for: The tree must be about 55 feet tall, with a maximum crown of branches of preferably 24 feet, and a maximum 30-inch diameter trunk, in order to fit well in the space at the Capitol. The tree should be a spruce or fir species, and be freely donated to the state. It must also be easily accessible, clear of power lines and other trees, with plenty of room around it to get all the work vehicles in position, as well as have space for the public to stand and watch for the harvesting ceremony.

The tree is almost always a spruce tree, Miller added, because usually only spruces fulfill all the requirements.

Photos of the trees should be included with the nomination form, since it makes the selection process easier. But regardless, their search is conducted thoroughly, Miller explained.

“If [nominators] don’t send a photo with it, we just automatically search that tree anyway because we don’t want to miss any of the trees,” Miller said, adding that they had few pictures sent in this year and a lot more driving to do. “If they do send a photo, if it’s standing right next to a house, we can tell the height of it, or if it’s not just what we want right away or if there’s power lines right on top of it—if we can tell something’s not right from the picture, we can eliminate that tree [from the search].”

Of the 21 trees nominated from the Lower Peninsula, only one met the height requirement.

“There’s a lot of nice trees but for some odd reason, the distance between like a 40-foot tree and a 50-foot tree, I don’t know what it is, but they just lose a lot of their shape or they catch some disease down here in the Lower Peninsula. So a lot of trees look really nice until 40-feet but as soon as they get to that last five years or 50- to -55-foot range, it’s very rare to find a tree [downstate] that meets all the requirements.

“Hence, that’s why we get opportunities in the U.P. There’s so many trees, a lot more that are out by themselves and don’t have [as much] competition, like maples or pines growing right next to them.”

With so many factors to navigate, very few of the nominated trees are ever chosen. About 80 percent of the time, he said, the selected tree ends up being one the team finds themselves, because as they drive between inspecting nominated trees, they are also looking around trying to spot trees that qualify. That is exactly what happened for this year’s tree as well.

“We literally drove by the house, saw the tree, talked to the homeowners, and after a brief conversation with them, they were willing to donate their tree to the state of Michigan, and we moved forward from there,” Miller explained.

“We drive from nomination to nomination, take a lot of back roads out in the country. We try to [select] one that is kind of closer to a house, more or less, because part of it is, yes, we want a nice tree for the Capitol, but part of it is also we want there to be a story behind it. We want to be able to relate to the homeowner and have that interaction,” Miller said.

The family who donated this year’s tree, Stevens and his grandfather, were certainly surprised by the selection crew’s visit.

“I came home and apparently two men from the state of Michigan had driven by,” Stevens said. “They yelled, ‘Stop’ and got out and looked up, and it was our tree. They called me and said, ‘We want to harvest your tree for the Capitol.’ I said, ‘Oh really? That sounds fantastic.’”

Stevens, a teacher in Stephenson, said that when his family moved into the house in 1991, the tree was already there. He remembers growing up with the tree, and yet, this past summer he’d been thinking about cutting it down.

“I’d been considering cutting it down because it’s very large and in the middle of the yard and might fall down,” Stevens said. “I didn’t want the tree.”

Before getting involved in this holiday tradition, the origin of the state Christmas tree wasn’t something he thought about, he said, and the events surrounding the tree harvest are new to him.

“It’s something that I don’t think about,” Stevens explained. “I know the White House has a Christmas tree and so does the Capitol, but I never thought about where these trees come from. Well, now one of them is coming from my yard. It certainly is a bigger deal than I expected.”

Part of that mental disconnect is because of the distance between the Upper Peninsula and downstate.

“Being from the U.P. sometimes I feel like things in Lansing and the Lower Peninsula happen in an entirely different world,” he continued. “But being able to contribute to the state is quite nice. I am very happy to be able to contribute the tree to the state of Michigan.”

Stevens described the feeling of this, what he hesitated to call an “honor,” as a bit bemusing but also thrilling.

“It is kind of a little overwhelming to think that this tree that’s been in my backyard really most of my life, 26 years, is going to be the tree that hundreds of thousands of people see,” he continued. “I think that’s awesome, to be able to contribute something like that.”

Stevens is quick to emphasize how minimal he feels his efforts to the project were.

“I really had little to do with it besides living here,” he said. “It was all circumstances. We didn’t plant [the tree]. All we’ve done is never cut it down, although I considered it,” Stevens said. “Truthfully, it feels like a weird thing to me because, did I really do anything besides live in the house and say, ‘Yes, you can have the tree I don’t want’?”

Despite feeling like only a small contributor to the project, Stevens was fascinated by the efforts of the team that does this every year.

“What I’ve been most impressed with is everything that goes into this, from the process of finding trees [and] contacting all the people,” he said.

Stevens described the thought of seeing his family’s tree at the Capitol, “To think, ‘Oh, man that’s my tree. It traveled nine hours from my yard to here.’”

Another key moment in this holiday tradition is the tree harvesting ceremony, in which community members gather to watch the tree be cut down and loaded onto the truck bound for Lansing.

“As for inviting people onto my yard for the [ceremony], that’s an easy thing to do and a pretty cool thing to do for the community,” he commented. “I believe that when you have an opportunity to contribute something positive to the community, you should do it.”


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