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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

The Geek Tree

by Ken Newquist / June 25, 2006
A close up of the Geek Tree.

What is the Geek Tree? It's a Christmas tree with a speculative fiction theme. And what's speculative fiction? Speaking broadly, it's a uber-genre comprised of science fiction, fantasy and horror, though in the case of the Geek Tree, it's primarily sci-fi. The tree is re-built annually by Ken Newquist, Nuketown's editor.

The Geek Tree Photo Gallery

After years of trying, I finally took some decent photos of the Geek Tree. I've posted them as a Flickr Gallery. There are 14 photos in all, but I may add one or two more to cover ornaments that I missed.

The History of the Geek Tree

Clark Griswold: "We're kicking off our fun old-fashioned family Christmas by heading out into the country in the old front-wheel drive sleigh to embrace the frosty majesty of the winter landscape and select that most important of Christmas symbols ... the Chrismas tree."
-- Christmas Vacation

I got my first geek ornament in 1992. It was the Shuttlecraft Galileo from the original Star Trek series, and featured Leonard Nimoy offering holiday greetings. Over the next few years my collection slowly grew, usually with one or two new Star Trek ornament received as Christmas and birthday presents.

At the time, no one really minded my ornaments on the tree, not when I was living with my parents, and not when my wife Sue and I moved in together in 1995. Then in 1997 something happened -- I started accumulating ornaments as a greatly accelerated rate. That year I picked up four; then in 1998 I got eight. By the Christmas of 2001, I had 22 ornaments and my collection was on the verge of conquering a significant percentage of the Christmas tree. People started making comments. Sue ask if all the ornaments had to go up on the tree. And I was expecting even more ornaments to arrive with the holidays.

It was time for the exodus.

In 2001, I bought a $20 fake tree at Wal-mart -- a five-foot "evergreen". When I first opened the box, I was skeptical -- the branches seemed a little thin for supporting the weight of the larger ornaments -- but it's proven to be tougher than it looks. It was able to accommodate all of my ornaments, and was big enough to still have room for future expansions.

A tradition was born.

Designing the Geek Tree

Ellen Griswold: "Clark ... that tree wouldn't fit in our front yard."
Clark Griswold: "It's not going in our front yard ... it's going in our living room"
-- Christmas Vacation

The earliest versions of the geek tree used strands of colored lights at its base -- one strand close to the tree, the second lying near the outside. The powered ornaments on the tree mandated the use of non-flashing lights (for one thing, the flashing might short the ornaments out. For another, even I would get sick of hearing the ornaments power-up every few seconds).

Unfortunately, there were a couple of problems with the colored lights. First, the trees with colored lights tend to be slightly dimmer than white lights. The trees get even dimmer when you start removing lights and in favor of powered ornaments, because the ornaments are never as bright as the bulbs they replace. Second, you need to pay attention to exactly what colors you're removing. The first time around I didn't do that and unwittingly ended up way too many pink lights. The next year I used a brighter strand of lights, hoping the tree would stand out more. It worked ... somewhat. But the problem with having too many of the same color lights remained.

In 2002 I moved to white lights, and that helped considerably, providing the powered ornaments with the energy they needed and brightening the tree considerably, but it was still too dim. And there was another problem that adding another strand of white lights wouldn't solve -- the tree just didn't move. I don't mean that it didn't physically move -- memories of my grandparents fake-fruit covered artificial rotating tree are enough to turn me off to spinning trees in general. What I mean is that it didn't have any visual motion to it -- it just sat there.

I remedied that problem by adding chasing lights to the tree in 2003. These lights are encased in a plastic tube (a la Buck Rogers' runways, which furthers the sci-fi theme) and "chase" each other up the tree. It worked out great -- the lights animate the tree while simultaneously providing the extra boost of illumination the ornaments needed.

After that Christmas, it was clear that the original Geek Tree was on the verge of being overloaded by the sheer number of ornaments. It was time for an upgrade, and in 2004 I bought a new tree: a seven-foot-tall "narrow" about three feet in diameter. It's pre-lit, and to make sure I don't lose any of these not-easily-replaceable bulbs, I use a secondary string to power the tree's myriad ornaments. The other notable upgrade in 2004 was the addition of the "geek" tree skirt. Made by my mom as a Christmas present, the quilted skirt features rockets and ringed planets on a blue background.

In 2005 I finally found the perfect tree topper -- a 6.5" tall Santa Yoda. He's attached to the top of the tree with rubber bands, which have proven remarkably effective in keeping him in place.

One of my earlier goals had been to diversify the Geek Tree beyond Star Wars and Star Trek ornaments, and over the last few years I've made a fair amount of progress. The geek tree now has a smattering of fantasy ornaments, in the form of Gandalf the Grey, Frodo Baggins and several characters from the Harry Potter books and movies. It's also has a number of superhero characters, including Batman and Spiderman.

Ornaments of Today

Clark Griswold: "250 strands of lights, 100 individual bulbs per strand, for a grand total of 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights. Drum roll please!"
-- Christmas Vacation

Ornaments of Future Past

There are a few ornaments and decorations that I've love to have for the tree, but alas, don't actually exist in this world (and most likely never will).

  • Levitating Candles: There's an excellent scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone where they enter the great hall and see hundreds of floating white candles. Who wouldn't want a few of those hovering around their tree?
  • Holographic Snow Flakes: More inspiration from Harry Potter, this time from The Chamber of Secrets. During the second movie our heroes once again enter the great hall, but this time the roof of it is filled with slowly failing snow flakes. Imagine the geek tree wrapped in an artificial snow storm, perhaps with the occasional snow speeder flying by.
  • Pulsar Ornaments: One of the only things I liked about Star Trek: Generations were the very cool crystal ornament's Picard sees on his nephew's Christmas tree. These clear ornaments had a small pulsar inside that would repeatedly flare up, filling the ornament with light, and then die away.
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Comments

Excellent idea the string of lights in plastic tube. I think you should get a rotating stand. I use it because I have over 350 ornaments to put up. It takes 3 days to finish and 3 days to take down. Mine is not be a geek tree but its a combo Star Trek, Star Wars, TV characters, Wizard of Oz, Madam Alexander dolls [for the wife] and Lionel trains. I also have a train set running at the base. If you would like to see a video or pics let me know

Heck yeah, please do post some photos of it. The tree sounds great. I have an HO Hogwart Express that theoretically goes with the geek tree, but unfortunately it's difficult to setup in the limited amount of space I have for it (the cars are very long, and couldn't navigate the tight circle needed for the tree's current footprint).

You could even do a whole Christmas themed train layout to accompany the geek tree, though I guess it might dilute the focus a bit. Besides the Hogwarts Express, you could add a Polar Express, Thomas Holiday Special, Shrek's Holiday Special, Yuletide Special, and White Christmas set. Not all of these are HO scale, but having different scales running on the same layout would add to the geekitude, I think.

Where do you buy your lights for the Star Trek ornaments? I have an old string that has died and trying to find a string to be able to put the ornaments on are tough. I bought lights from Walmart, but the light base is too fat to put the ornaments on. Any suggestions? I don't really want to do a mail order for lights. Thanks!

Sorry, I couldn't say -- I'm using the lights that came on my artificial tree, and the tree itself is about 5 years old at this point. I'd recommend bringing the ornament to Home Depot or Lowes and asking the folks there which lights would work with it.

I finally convinced the Princess Bride that I should have a Geek Tree. We agreed I will start small - It's a two foot tree (planted in a ceramic Santa boot). Most of my geek-oriented ornaments are small, so the tree size is perfect.

I may be picking your brain as it goes along.

Thanks for the inspiration!

I'm a computer engineer - and a geek - so what of it? I love what you've done to bring and engineering touch to something so simple as erecting a christmas tree. Good work. Tis the season and all that - so have a good one. Merry Christmas all!