THE KOETS FAMILY
20 Feet of Joy Beneath
an 8-Foot Ceiling
The huge blue spruce more than doubles the width of the doorframe it’s meant to go through, even with drum-tight ratchet straps keeping the biggest of the limbs in check. From underneath the tree, Jon Koets counts to three, and it starts—a collaborative effort of shoving from outside and pulling from within. Like a hospital delivery room, there’s intense pushing followed by moments of rest. After ten minutes of this, the last of the behemoth tree finally nears the threshold, and it’s clear that one more good push will do it. In years past, this final thrust has put the tree’s trunk clear through the entryway drywall, but this year all goes smoothly.
The decades-old tradition of the Koets’ family giant Christmas tree has grown over the years as it has achieved legend status in the community of Richland, Michigan. Youngest son, Robbie, scouts trees weeks ahead of time with a tape measure. A 25-foot tree is fine, but what he’s really looking for is that eight-foot section somewhere in the middle that looks full, symmetrical, and beautiful. The actual number is 7-foot, 8-inches, which Robbie has calculated to be the maximum size to accommodate the tree and treestand under the family home’s 8-foot ceiling.
In the field earlier in the day, Robbie led his pregnant wife Shelagh, parents Karen and Jon, older brother Josh, and Josh’s partner Kirk, to the two trees he’d scouted—both full, round-shaped spruces about 20 feet high. The family debated the merits of each, but in one in particular Jon saw exactly what he wanted.
“We look for fullness,” he
says. “with branches at
the top that splay out side
to side just so. She’s a
beautiful tree. I just need
a bigger living room.”
After a felling worthy of a lumberjack, the family loaded the entire tree onto a 30-foot flatbed and got it to their front yard, where the whole crew carefully inspected it to find the perfect section that’d make it into the living room. This process gets contentious, as everyone has different opinions of which branches matter most. Every year, excellent limbs are sacrificed. This year though, a gametime decision has brought an 11-foot section into the house. After some debate, the family decided that the 3-foot tip of the tree was supple enough to bend with the ceiling and to help act as a wedge to keep the whole thing upright.
Shortly after he graduated from high school nearly 20 years ago, Robbie took over as captain of the process from his dad, and added to it a system of precise measurement and planning. But this year, wanting to go real big, some of that precision went out the window. In the old days, Jon would eyeball a section, cut it, and stuff it into the house, after which he’d have to trim significant portions to make it actually fit. He’s been known to fire up the gas chainsaw inside the house for quick trimming work—not an advisable move for anybody other than a Koets.
“The number one thing that gets said to me from my parents is, don't cut too much. Don't cut too much. You're going to make it too small,” Robbie says. “And I'm like, this is a 25-foot tree. I'm not going to make it too small.”
The trees have come from a local Christmas tree farm looking to get rid of some of its overgrown monsters, some family friends looking to shed a few trees to expand their horse pasture, and now from a community of friends who feel that it’s not really Christmas until they see the annual photo of the Koets family tree. The whole family says they’ve really started to feel the pressure in recent years, believing that people have come to expect big things from their tree selection.
“It has to be big
this year,” Jon
says. “I don’t
care about the
Like any good tradition, nobody really remembers precisely how it started. Looking back at photos from when Josh and Robbie were kids, the trees of those years were more standard in size. One year, the family church tasked Jon with providing its Christmas tree. Jon looked up at the building’s double doors and 30-foot ceiling, and took that as a challenge. But it’s a mystery when that 30-foot mentality took to the 8-foot ceiling. It may just have been a need to accommodate Karen’s massive and growing collection of ornaments.
The scars of years past are evident in the ceiling, drywall, and doorframe. Permanent eye hooks screwed into the ceiling joists accommodate wire that helps hold the massive section of spruce upright. Robbie reprises his dad’s old tradition of firing up the chainsaw in the house to square off the trunk to get it to fit the treestand—which is store-bought, but industrial, and has been reinforced over the years. The boys wrestle the tree upright while Karen and Shelagh direct traffic and keep the curious family dogs out of the way. The moment of truth comes at the undoing of the ratchet straps, truly letting the huge limbs unfurl to take up nearly the entire living room. A bit of spinning is possible to ensure that the best side is facing out.
Once the tree’s up there’s a moment of respite, pizza, and beer. The carpeting is coated in needles and sawdust, arms are covered in red welts and scratches. Some years, decoration comes over the course of the next several weeks. But this year, Jon jumps right into lighting the beauty, using a long-handled claw stick to wrap endless strands around and around every last branch—3,000 lights in total. Everyone chips in with ornaments, digging into countless ski boot boxes full of them. The final few ornaments, angels, and a train set running underneath the gargantuan limbs won’t be in place until the final days before Christmas, but for now it’s time to call it a night; time to sit down, embrace the wonderful evergreen smell that now permeates the entire house, and talk about what makes it all worth it.
“A lot of traditions come and go,” Robbie says. “Oh, we always go to this play, or we always do this, or whatever. But this has been one that stuck, and I don't know if there really is a why. It's really a why not? My parents love Christmas. Honestly, when it's all decorated, just sitting there at night—they don't have a big fancy house—but sitting there at night with this giant Christmas tree in this little 2,000 square-foot ranch house, it's just funny. And at the same time, it's just so peaceful. The glow of that tree with a thousand lights on it, it's just nice. It's a ridiculous tradition that is just so enjoyable.”
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