Cutting back or eliminating expensive gifts, holiday trips and other luxuries is almost a given this Christmas, as families tighten their belts and try to weather a relentless recession.
But how many families will forgo a Christmas tree?
Not many, according to Carville Akehurst, executive director of the Maryland Christmas Tree Growers Association.
"The economy, per se, is not a big factor in the sale of all Christmas trees," he says. "People are not going to stop buying Christmas trees because of hard economic times. The fact that some of us who are working are buying less . . . because we're afraid we might get that pink slip, we're not going to do without a Christmas tree because of that."
And as one local seller puts it: "People stop buying Christmas trees, and we are going to be in big trouble."
Prices for trees this year are lower -- in some cases as much at 30 percent. But tree experts say lower prices are a result of more than just a bad economy.
Most of the trees being sold now are an average of 9 years old, Akehurst says, which means growers have to try to determine the demand for Christmas trees years in advance. This year's drought, for example, did not affect this year's crop, but will affect the number of trees available around the year 2000.
And sellers who have to buy trees from farmers ordered their trees months ago, they say, unsure of how bad or good the economy would be this Christmas. Most just bought trees based on the number they sold last year and how many trees were left over.
The unseasonably mild temperatures that Maryland has experienced so far this December may also affect shoppers' Christmas spirit, according to Henry Marconi, vice president of Watson's Garden Center on York Road.
"It doesn't put people in the mood," he says. Prices for cut trees at Watson's are 15 to 20 percent lower than last year's, he says.
"I had to. What am I going to do? I have to sell trees."
But Akehurst says that warmer weather can mean better sales for farmers at choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms, where people are more likely to spend a day with their families outside if the weather is nice.
Two years ago, when Maryland experienced a cold December, "rather than stand around out there in the field, people went out and picked any tree on the closest lot," Akehurst says. And they paid handsomely for the privilege.
Some tree sellers say they're surprised at how quickly some of their larger trees sold, theorizing that families who save in other ways are willing to splurge for an especially nice tree.
"They're not taking that vacation, maybe they're not spending money on a new car," says Alan Thomson, a manager at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville. Motioning to an empty space on the tree lot, he says he has only about 10 of his 45 12- and 13-foot trees left.
Betty Hemphill of Hemphill's Garden Center at Towson Market Place also says her largest trees sold more quickly than normal this year. "People are staying on the home front," she says. "And they're putting more into Christmas at home."
As the weekend approaches, farmers and sellers are gearing up for what they hope will be their biggest sales.
Jeff Nicoll, who sells his own Virginia-grown trees from a stand on Stevenson Lane between Charles Street and Bellona Avenue, says he hopes to sell 60 percent of his trees over the weekend.
"A rainy Saturday or Sunday could kill us," he says.
And whether or not you'll get a better deal on a tree as Christmas draws near is uncertain, as equal numbers of sellers seem to be mixed on whether or not reducing prices further is the best policy.