Business booms for wooden Christmas trees that unite neighbourhood & keep Calgary carpenter smiling

·2 min read
Derek McGillis, left, and the trees he builds, right. (Terri Trembath/CBC - image credit)
Derek McGillis, left, and the trees he builds, right. (Terri Trembath/CBC - image credit)

Calgarian Derek McGillis started making simple, wooden Christmas trees last December as a way to make ends meet — and what a difference a year has made.

The effort led to hundreds of requests, and this season, McGillis has now set up an assembly line running out of his own little shop in his backyard.

McGillis now estimates the handcrafted holiday trees are in the yards and homes of about 500 people who live from Vancouver to Halifax.

And he has been busy ever since, putting his carpentry skills to work in the community.

"The response was just incredible," McGillis said. "I went from making four trees to … making 40 trees in one day."

Something built by Derek

When McGillis started creating the simple spruce Christmas tree decorations in 2020, it was to keep his grandsons busy.

He would start woodworking and they would come outside, wanting to be involved, he said.

And after rotator cuff surgery put McGillis out of work as a roofer, he posted some of the trees for sale.

What he thought would be a small endeavour was quickly buoyed along by the enthusiasm of residents in his southwest neighbourhood of Woodbine — and requests started coming in for other builds like planters, too.

"They just jumped behind me," he said. "I had one woman say, 'Everybody has to have something built by Derek.'"

McGillis — who makes a point to use all the wood he sources for the decorations — now makes appearances at Christmas fairs, in spite of his self-described shyness. He also takes special orders for trees — including one that stands over seven feet tall.

"This woodwork, and the response from the communities that I'm given — makes me want to step out there," McGillis said.

"And when I go out, I'm smiling."

The way that it should be

Woodbine's enthusiasm for the trees hasn't ebbed in 2021, even after he moved to the southeast neighbourhood of Sundance.

"It started with Woodbine," McGillis said.

"[And] the community just came together when they knew the trees were being made again.… Everybody was excited to see them."

To give back, McGillis started doing carpentry work around the neighbourhood.

For example, Woodbine resident Naomi Burkinshaw says McGillis was the first to offer to build a community food hamper this fall.

Terri Trembath/CBC
Terri Trembath/CBC

"He's built not just our pantry, but little free libraries for people, and he has helped out with various other projects that people have had," Burkinshaw said. "He's always there."

But it's no chore for McGillis.

"It's not paying it forward, it's … humanity," McGillis said.

"It's the way that we should all be, right?"

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