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A growing tradition: super-sized trees

NORWELL -- Back in 1998, the Gallagher family's Christmas tree was so tall it dented the ceiling. They'd wrestled their 7 1/2-foot tree into its stand, but, alas, it didn't fit the antique house in Hanover where they lived at the time.

Those days have passed.

Paul and Kathy Gallagher and their two children now reside in Norwell, in a 6,000-square-foot house whose 22-by-20-foo t family room has an 18-foot ceiling. A room that big begs for a big tree, which is why they chose a 12-foot Fraser fir at Webster Cranberry's tree farm on the other side of town.

The Gallaghers are part of a small but growing niche market, owners of super-sized houses in search of super-sized trees at Christmastime. As more large homes with cathedral ceilings dot the suburban landscape, more families seek trees so tall they need ladders to trim them.

"I like to get a tree that's going to fit the room. It should be the focal point," said Kathy Gallagher, 42, a physician's assistant. "It's big enough to accommodate all the ornaments we've acquired over the years with all the memories."

Webster Cranberry owner John Kopacz expects to sell 50 trees over 10 feet tall this season, up from about 15 five years ago.

Bob and Nancy Ractliffe of Dover got their 12-foot Fraser from Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, which sells about 1,000 trees, including 100 to 125 that are 10 feet or taller. "It was almost unheard of a decade ago," said Barry White, the nursery's buyer.

Russell's Garden Center in Wayland , with 2,700 Christmas trees, sells about 250 that are 10 feet and taller. "They're increasing maybe 20 percent per year," said co-owner Lewis Russell. "There are a lot of big houses."

This is the Gallaghers' first Christmas in the home that Paul Gallagher's construction company built. They had a 10-foot tree in their previous home, a 4,200-square-foot house in Hanover, also built by Gallagher's firm, to which they moved from that old house with the 8-foot ceilings. In the Norwell and Hanover subdivisions alone, Gallagher said, 58 large homes have gone up since 2000.

The Saturday the Gallaghers picked up their Christmas tree, the family piled into their 2006 Land Cruiser and their nephew, John Gallagher, 19, followed in the company pick-up. Their 8 -year-old daughter, Mary Kate, dressed for the season in a red velvet dress with white furry trim, had lobbied for a 12-foot tree almost as wide as it is tall. Kathy Gallagher, partial as she is to tall trees, said no. "We couldn't get it into the house."

As it was, it took four people to load the Gallaghers' tree onto the nursery's cart and three to push it into the pick-up. Back home, Paul and John Gallagher dragged it across the back porch and broke three branches as they squeezed it through the double doors . "I didn't throw my back out, so I guess it's OK," said Paul Gallagher, 44. His nephew hammered nails into the tops of the window frames on opposite sides of the room and secured the tree with wire.

The Ractliffes know from experience that's a good idea. In 1990, the 15-foot tree they'd installed in a too-small stand crashed to the floor of their St. Louis home. Luckily, the glass balls that shattered were considerably less valuable than the hand-painted, hand-blown glass ornaments they now use. The 10,000-square-foot house in Dover that they bought in 2001 has a 26-by-20- foot family room with a 20-foot ceiling.

The Gallaghers paid $118 for their tree; the Ractliffes paid $279 for theirs, plus another $50 for delivery and set-up. That's well above the $60 to $75 Webster Cranberry and Weston Nurseries charge for a typical 7- to 8-foot Fraser -- and the balsams Weston sells go for even less.

As similar as the families' trees are in size, they differ substantially once decorated . The Gallaghers' tree twinkles with 600 white lights, the Ractliffes' with 3,100. The Gallaghers favor ornaments that are cute, homemade, or edible, the Ractliffes collectibles that can cost more than $100 apiece.

The Ractliffes' tree is a tableau for 400-plus intricate figures -- Waterford calling birds, a red butterfly by Jay Strongwater , a black-robed Father Christmas by Patricia Breen , a Swarovski crystal snowflake -- each with maker's tag still attached.

"You have to work from the top down," said Bob Ractliffe, a 63-year-old retired business executive. "Otherwise the ladder bumps into the ornaments."

In Norwell, meanwhile, the Gallaghers listened to Christmas music as they decorated their tree, an occasion that marked 6-year-old Jack's first time on a ladder. They hung the sand castle ornament from the collection started at their wedding shower, the Winnie the Pooh ball that was Jack's first ornament, the strings of cranberries and popcorn they'd spent days preparing, and the puppy that honors their dog, Griffin. The cable - knit sweater ornament was from Kathy Gallagher's father, who died last year.

The decorating done, Mary Kate stood in the doorway and clapped. "At least it was worth doing all that popcorn and cranberries," she said.

The next day, Webster Cranberry sold a 17-foot Fraser fir to a family from Framingham.

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