In Memoriam: Christmas Tree Shops (1970-2023)

The Massachusetts-born discount chain of seasonal goods, arbitrary housewares, and other bric-a-brac comforts died this summer at the age of 53. Here, we say goodbye.

The now-shuttered Christmas Tree Shops location at Patriot Place. / Original photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images; emoji placement by C. Dodero

Looking back on 2023, we remember the loved ones we lost: pivotal Boston political figure, Mel King; Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield; Frances Sternhagen, the Tony-winning actress who, crucially to our regional identity, played Cliff Clavin’s mother on Cheers. But also this year, we lost another towering New England figure: the Christmas Tree Shops. A Cape Cod original, the discount chain lived a long life as a steadfast companion to grandmas, bargain hunters, and Sagamore Bridge adventurers everywhere. Here, we pay tribute to a dearly departed friend.

It was only about a week ago that the loss of the Christmas Tree Shops really hit me. I was standing in my basement, surrounded by the amorphous, teetering piles of my kids’ holiday gifts, when I realized I needed a few things. Wrapping paper (preferably character-themed). Tape–the good kind, not the dollar store kind that barely stays on the roll. Gift bags, crisp ones that didn’t look like they’d been reused 100 times. I had some supplies left over from last year, but I knew it wouldn’t be nearly enough to get me through the season.

I realized I could easily go to my local supermarket, drug store, or Target for any of those items. But the only place I could think of—the only place I really wanted to go—was the Christmas Tree Shops. And I couldn’t. Because in August, the Middleborough-based chain shuttered all its stores in Massachusetts and across the country (at the time, 49 in total per USA Today) after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, leaving a gigantic-Christmas-bow-sized hole in the hearts of bargain shoppers everywhere.

Of course, the Christmas Tree Shops were about way more than Christmas. The first location opened as the “Christmas Tree Gift Shop” in Yarmouth Port; in 1970, Charles and Doreen Bilezikian took over and expanded the business, renaming it the Christmas Tree Shops and adding everything from toys to vacation sundries to penny candy. (The store’s new name was plural because three buildings comprised the original location.) From there, the Cape Cod staple grew to multiple locations across the state before Bed Bath and Beyond purchased it in 2003. (The chain was ultimately sold to Sudbury-based Handil Holdings before its untimely demise.)

The flagship Christmas Tree Shops location in Sagamore, Massachusetts, nestled right off the Sagamore Bridge, with its own windmill. / Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

For the two decades I’ve lived in Massachusetts, the chain has been a repository of every knickknack I’ve ever needed, and many I definitely didn’t. I still remember my first visit to the Christmas Tree Shops, back in the early 2000s. I was in Cape Cod, renting a house with my family for the week. The quirky, thatched-roof building with an adjacent windmill caught our attention just as we were about to cross the Sagamore Bridge, and when we went in to check it out, our minds were promptly blown by the random assortment of, well, stuff (some might use a crasser word). I left with a flip-flop name keychain and a wooden cutting board. The cutting board is still in my cabinet today; the keychain, regrettably, now lives in a landfill somewhere.

Some purchases were smarter than others. I still remember the day I scored an expensive brand-name hair dryer for 15 bucks. I’ve purchased more melamine platters emblazoned with pineapples, dogs, and colorful fish than I care to disclose. Those fancy little bathroom napkins that cost $6 at other stores? I could get ‘em for half that at the Christmas Tree. The truth was, shopping there wasn’t just an errand; it was something to look forward to, a much-needed dose of retail therapy for which the price was always right.

I know I’m not the only one who felt this way. “I can’t remember what I bought,” one woman told before the stores closed, “but I do remember the experience…. It was like walking into a closet full of surprise treasures.” Another opined, “I hated to move out of Massachusetts for Florida because I had to leave them behind…. I think most of my house in the mid-‘80s was decorated by the Christmas Tree Shops!”

The last time I went to the Shrewsbury location, it was just a few days from closing. Walking in, the normally overflowing shelves were mostly bare. It was remarkable to see a place that used to be packed with so many decorations, home goods, and life necessities feel so, well, empty. My kids darted through the space freely, unburdened by merchandise or other shoppers. In one corner of the store, my husband spotted a cooler that could be converted into a table. It was 50 percent off. “Do we need this for anything?” he asked.

Normally, I might have stopped to think about that for a second. But this time there was barely any hesitation. “I don’t think so,” I said, shaking my head. Without all of the other thousands of products jockeying for my attention, the desire to buy something had all but disappeared.

On the way out, I did grab one last souvenir from one of my favorite stores: a mini decorative pumpkin engraved with our family’s initial. We could put this out for Halloween, I thought to myself as the cashier rang me up for 60 cents. After all, you can never have enough small ceramic gourds.

Brittany Jasnoff is the executive editor of Boston magazine. She can’t remember what she did with that pumpkin.