“I like little houses and lanterns the best,” Says Tom Osborn as he searches for his favorite Christmas tree ornaments. Spread out on the floor in front of him is a collection of more than a thousand brightly colored, glittery, shiny decorations in every shape imaginable: acorns, hearts, bells, angels, fish, frogs, pears, bears, cones, spirals, snowflakes, Santas, bugles, apples. He owns them all. “Someone made this one for me a long time ago. Isn’t it wonderful?” Dangling from his fingers is an egg-shaped ornament covered in white and gold brocade, striped with olive-green velvet and pearly jewels. “It’s a copy of a Russian Faberge egg.” Osborn and his assistant, Philip Howard, are preparing to decorate a Christmas tree in the style Osborn would choose for his own home.
Osborn, a 57-year-old Christian Scientist who neither smokes nor drinks, is slightly bald, has a graying moustache and a deep tan, and owns a Siamese cat named Angel Noel. By profession he is a custom draper. But he has collected Christmas ornaments for most of his life, and for the last thirty years he has been in the seasonal business of decorating trees in Houston homes and businesses. Every December he takes three weeks of vacation from his regular job and devotes his time to Christmas trees. He and Howard work with about a dozen different families, including some who have been clients for 25 years, as well as three or four commercial accounts. The two men deliver trees to a few of those families and just string lights for others, but for most they do the works: deliver a perfectly shaped tree, string the lights, and hang all the ornaments. Osborn will even put together a custom ornament collection if the client’s own selection is lacking. This year he is doing a 25-foot tree for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston—using decorations from a collection of almost three thousand ornaments that art patron Audrey Beck left to the museum—in addition to trees for the Houston Ballet’s Nutcracker Market and Cullen Bank. Having a tree decorated by Tom Osborn can cost anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars, but as he says, “I’m the best. If they’re shopping for price they’re talking to the wrong guy.”
It is the private clients who are the most intriguing. It seems as if the point of Christmas—the gathering of family and friends together in a warm, holiday spirit—is being missed by people who hire a professional to trim their tree. Osborn, at least, makes an effort to keep the decorating personal, paying close attention to individual tastes. He’s very protective of his clients and will characterize them only as “the exclusive, precise few.” Christine Belich, another professional tree trimmer, is more illuminating about such clients. She describes them as “prominent, active social people who don’t have the time or the talent to decorate their tree the way they want it to be. It’s got to be perfect. Just like people who don’t do their own hair.” Though most clients want a tree done because they are throwing a holiday party, their family often gathers to watch as the tree is decorated. Sometimes they even serve Osborn eggnog and cookies. Other times they go out for the evening, anticipating a magical surprise when they return.
Osborn specializes in the traditional style, the look that best suits a room full of eighteenth-century furniture—natural trees trimmed with colored-glass ornaments, concave reflectors, and real tinsel icicles. While he is most fond of natural decorations and soft colors, such as plums, pinks, and blues (“not red and green”), he’ll do just about anything asked of him. He has adorned flocked trees. He has created Mexican-theme trees with straw ornaments, brightly colored paper flowers, and gold lights; a fifties tree spray-painted silver and embellished with white lights, mirrored ornaments, and spun glass; a Williamsburg tree trimmed with pine cones, popcorn, candles, and birds. He filled one tree with only Steiff stuffed animals—a veritable Noah’s Ark tree.
After growing up in Beaumont, Osborn had a career as a professional ice skater, then moved on to advertising and finally to decorating. But he has always been infatuated, even obsessed, with trees. “I just love trees,” he says. “If I had my life to live over again, I would study forestry.” He decorated his first Christmas trees at a tender age. “When I was a kid and I found a cut shrub or tree, I would drag it home to decorate. I made Easter trees, Halloween trees, Thanksgiving trees. And at Christmas I’d beg my parents to put up the tree as early as possible. I’d decorate the whole thing once and then take it all down and start over again. I’d rehang every ornament, each little icicle.”
Even though Osborn sees his passion as “rather obscure,” for many florists, interior decorators, and window dressers, tree-decorating is a logical extension of their regular businesses. For the last ten or fifteen years the practice of hiring a professional to trim the tree and deck the halls has been relatively common among wealthy Houston families, and it has increased steadily with the city’s affluence. Florists, in particular, are swamped with orders scheduled between the last week of November and Christmas. It’s a word-of-mouth operation—someone sees a window dresser putting up a tree in a store or notices the tree at a friend’s Christmas party and asks if she can get hers done next year. Florists like Ben Krueger of Au Naturale and Lyman Ratcliffe have clients lined up and are ordering trees through a local broker by June. They may decorate eight or as many as thirty trees a season, spending between four hours and two full days on each tree. One of the best-known florists in Houston, Leonard Tharp, will do your tree if you also want the rest of your house decorated, from the front door to the mantelpiece to the guest bathroom. But if it’s only a tree you want, he’ll recommend Tom Osborn.
“I’ve never had one this pretty,” Osborn says of the tree he has just taken from its burlap wrapping. It’s an eight-foot Noble fir that was cut just two days earlier in a Washington forest and then airfreighted to Osborn’s tree broker, Barry Jackson at the Plant Farm in Houston. “This one was hand-picked,” Osborn explains. “Usually Noble firs aren’t so full, and a branch is broken or crushed. And you rarely find a Noble with a pretty top. See.” He points to the meager twigs at the tree’s top. Next to this tree is another one, much smaller and scrawnier—the “filler.” Because he expects flaws, Osborn always orders a second tree that can be cut up to fill in, or plug, the larger tree’s bare spots.
Osborn stands with his hands on his hips, looking the tree over, eyeing the spots where he plans to plug in a branch cut from the spare tree. “This tree needs a fitting,” he announces. “Where’s the drill?” he asks Howard. Once he finds a gap, Osborn tries out several spare branches by pushing them into the spot and checking for size, color (the shades of green may vary from silver to blue), and variation (the density of the needles will differ depending on what side of the mountain a tree is grown on). Howard steps back to inspect the look. “There’s a relationship between the height and the width of the tree that you must keep in mind,” he says, and he gives Osborn’s branch his approval. Howard then drills an angled, inch-deep hole into the trunk of the tree while Osborn uses a butcher knife to whittle the end of the branch down to size. Then they hot-glue the branch into the hole.
Sometimes even more major surgery is required. For instance, when a tree isn’t as tall as Osborn and Howard want or when the top isn’t full enough, they will “stack” it. First they cut the top off and drill a hole inside the center of the trunk. Into the hole they insert a six-inch metal dowel. Then they take a taller or prettier top from another tree, drill a matching hole in the center of its trunk, and stick it on the dowel. “Of course, it’s not going to do the tree any good to water it when you do that,” Howard adds. That’s one of the advantages of Noble firs—they stay fresh longer, even if they are in two parts.
Most of the homes that Osborn and Howard do require a tree eight to ten feet tall. Since Noble firs of more than eight feet usually aren’t as full as Osborn would like, he often buys shorter trees and stacks them. He goes to the extra trouble because Noble firs are so beautiful (“They’re fabulous. They’ve changed my life”) and because they keep their needles (“If we were to leave this tree till next year, it would still have its needles, but they’d be terra-cotta”). Douglas firs are better if height is the primary requirement, but Osborn doesn’t like them as well because their branches are so soft that they’ll barely hold any ornaments. “Blue or silver spruces are just lovely, but they lose their needles instantly. You can stand in a room and hear them drop off. And they stick you to death.” The long-needled Scotch pines usually have a full shape, but they’re so bushy that they can’t take as many decorations as Osborn likes to use.
“The resin of a Noble is like perfume,” Osborn says adoringly. With all the drilling and whittling going on, a luscious, thick pine fragrance has filled the room. He has now plugged 25 to 30 extra branches into the tree, and it is looking plump and shapely. To the untutored eye it may seem as balanced and full as it can possibly be, but Osborn and Howard say that every time they add a branch another gap appears. “You can get it too full,” Osborn explains as he fluffs the branches. “Then I can’t get the ornaments in, and I have to go in with scissors and trim it back. I just like to fool with trees forever. Torture them to death.” As he works Osborn explains that he usually does the plugging and stacking during the day, out of sight of his clients. “They get nervous watching us move things around.”
After a little more preening, Osborn admits, “Really, it’s perfect right now.” He’s right. The top, which was quite spindly before, is now as full as the rest. “If you look close enough you can see the stitches.” He has taped green Styrofoam around the very top of the trunk and then stuck in small branches from the other tree. He uses Styrofoam because the top of a tree is so thin that if you drill holes in it, it could just fall off.
After leveling the tree by sticking little blocks of wood under its stand, Osborn is ready to add the sparkle of lights. He is looking over his group of miniature lights, about twenty sets, all neatly coiled and separated. “Daytime is hateful for trees. You can’t see the lights, and they lose their magic.” Osborn tests each set and leaves it lighted as he weaves the cord through the branches.
“The most common mistake, I think,” he says as he strings the lights from the bottom of the tree up, pushing them deep toward the back of the branches and gently tugging them forward, “is to put a light on the end of each branch, which is exactly where an ornament should go.” He works in small triangular areas; circling the tree would make the lights too difficult to take down. And he doesn’t twist the cords tightly around the branch; that would pull on the needles and take away from the shape of the branch.
“Every once in a while I have to jump back and see what I’ve done,” he says, getting a better perspective. He’s got a string of lights roped around his neck. “It’s good to do the lights in the dark so you can really tell.” First he hangs the multicolored lights, and then he goes back in with the solid-colored ones. “I’m just mad about those amber lights.” Amber gives the tree a lot of green, he explains, and the bright white lights are a little too hard-edged. “Softer lights are nicer for a residence.” Osborn uses miniature Italian lights, but he says the ones made in Taiwan are pretty foolproof. The old-fashioned indoor-outdoor lights with the screw-in bulbs are not for trees anymore. Or at least not for his trees. “The globes and cords are so heavy that they weight the branches down.”
With the lights arranged to perfection, Osborn studies his collection of ornaments. “Excess is better if you have pretty things. We’ll get this tree so covered with ornaments you won’t see any wires.” As he attaches them to the tree, he holds several by their hooks in his teeth and others in each hand. “You start with the big ornaments. They go farthest in, and you decorate from the trunk out. It pulls the branch down if you put a big one on the end. The whole idea of the Christmas tree is the shape, and you don’t want to lose that with the big ornaments.” If a branch does get pulled down from the weight of the lights or an ornament, Osborn hoists it up with a wire from the branch above. He closes the hook of a large coral-and-gold glittered ball and then checks to make sure his ornaments are all hanging free. He moves about the tree and even gets down on the floor to see that he is placing everything properly. The smaller, lighter ornaments dangle on the ends of the branches. “Of course, you put your favorite ones on the front,” he says, as he hangs a shiny chartreuse sun prominently. Howard is inclined to place the plain, solid-colored glass balls back inside the tree for color and reflection.
“I’m going to the top now.” Osborn makes his move before the last ornaments are hung, so he won’t bump them off. He climbs up a ladder, and Howard passes him some thin green florist’s stakes, which Osborn sticks into the Styrofoam at the top of the tree. “I do a sort of Guadalupe Madonna look at the top. You could call it my signature.” Spraying out from the top of his tree are more than twenty finials, jeweled blown-glass globes surmounted by long, tapering points. “Putting this many on is simply outrageous. It’s gilding the lily, but it’s what I love best. Opulence is the name of the game.”
While he sings “I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me,” part of a song from Paint Your Wagon, Tom Osborn applies the finishing touches, real tinsel icicles from Bavaria, to his tree. “I could just go on forever,” he says, searching for another spot to garnish. But there are no more spots; he’s covered them all.
Finally Osborn stands back, admiring his work. “I think it’s one of the nicest I’ve ever done.” It is a beautiful tree, glistening with color and sparkle, and somehow reminiscent of Tom Osborn, who in a contemplative moment says, “It’s a shame this business has come my way. Really. People need more family-centered things to be happier.”