Despite cost, Christmas tree shoppers keep it real

December 15, 2008|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

A few years back, when they were saving to buy their Perry Hall home, Charmaygne and Kevin Litz skimped on Christmas and canceled the big Dec. 24 party they held every year for family and friends. Never again, Charmaygne vowed.

So this year, with money tight and the economy seeming to crumble around them, the Litz family did cut back. Charmaygne and Kevin won't be giving gifts to each other. But other things are non-negotiable: that huge Christmas Eve bash and the fresh tree at the center of it.

"It means a lot to us to have the real tree, the smell of Christmas," she said yesterday as her husband secured a 9-foot Douglas fir in the bed of their pickup. "We consider a real tree symbolic of our Christmas."

The Litzes weren't going without, but Helen Winter, the 80-year-old proprietor of the Frostee Tree Farm in Perry Hall - where the Litzes have cut down their trees for 15 years - said tough economic times have trickled down to her business. She says business is running about half of what it was last December, and she thinks financial worries are keeping some of her usual customers away. "The economy's got people," agreed Paul Stiffler, who owns the farm with Winter.

Some shoppers are opting this year for smaller trees instead of the biggest their homes can handle. More people are asking about prices up front (prices at Frostee are $45 and up). Some are balking. One family of five unloaded from its van only to get right back in after learning what a tree would cost. Another family fought with Winter for more than an hour over a tree they had already cut down before she finally gave in to a discounted price. At times, it sure didn't feel like Christmas.

Not every tree farm is suffering. Bill Underwood, who runs Pine Valley Christmas Trees in Elkton and whose daughter is treasurer of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, said he has spoken to other growers and that sales have surprised her.

"They seem to be having a pretty decent year," he said. "I thought it might have been down."

Live Christmas trees are a $1.3 billion-a-year business. Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association outside St. Louis, said the news he is hearing shows that "the economy doesn't have any impact on tree sales."

"People who want a tree are going to get a tree. Period," he said. "It's a tradition people aren't willing to give up."

Of course, there are cheaper alternatives to chopping down your own tree. Prices as low as $20 can be spotted at tree lots taking up swaths of blacktop along major roads in the area. But connoisseurs of the whole grab-a-saw-and-head-out-into-the-woods-t o-find-just-the-right-tree-to-gather-around-on-Christmas-morning experience wouldn't trade it - regardless of cost.

It was just how Laura Mooney's family got their tree when she was growing up. Now 22 and engaged, the Bowleys Quarters woman said she wanted to carry on that ritual. "I thought it would be a good tradition for us to start," she said. It was still more than she expected to spend. A friend had spent $30 on hers at a lot, and Mooney figured she could handle that. The $70 price tag on her 7-foot white pine was so high that she had to send her fiance, Patrick Hedderick, up to a nearby automated teller machine so they would have enough cash for Winter, who doesn't take credit cards.

"I splurged," Mooney said, "but I'd do it again."

Cutting down a Christmas tree is not a solitary affair. It's all about the experience. Most people bring their families, and sometimes everyone gets a vote. Sometimes there's bickering or whining; sometimes there's lengthy deliberations over which one is the one. Often, peals of laughter can be heard.

Stephanie and Brad Provenza of Joppatowne brought their sons - Tony, 10, and Joey, 8 - who raced in and out of the trees as they tried to pick the right one on which to test out their saw. "We're not going to walk out of here with any $85 tree," Brad Provenza said as the hunt began. He and his wife steered the boys toward a white pine, after deciding a blue spruce or a Douglas fir was out of their price range.

They debated one tree against another (one was too skinny and maybe too short, Mom and Dad decided; their parents' choice wasn't full enough, either, the boys said) until they chose one that seemed to have enough heft and height. Tony lay on the ground and worked the saw as the rest of the family cheered him on. The tab for this little outing: $70.

Farms nearby have been closing, and options for buying fresh trees are becoming more limited. But the Litzes, who have been coming to Frostee Tree Farm with their 15-year-old daughter, Shelby, since she was a baby, plan on returning to this farm as long as it's around, until the economy turns around again and the nearby million-dollar homes swallow up this land, too.

The goal each year, Charmaygne Litz said, is always to carry the chosen tree back up the farm's steep hill and to the parking lot without having to call Stiffler to drive it up for them on his tractor.

It has become part of the Christmas tradition itself.

TREE TRENDS

Type of tree purchased in 2007

Real 31.3 million

Artificial 17.4 million

Type of real tree purchased in 2007

Pre-cut 84 percent

Cut-your-own 16 percent

Location of real-tree purchase in 2007

Choose-and-harvest farm 21 percent

Nursery/garden center 20 percent

Chain store 23 percent

Retail lot 12 percent

Nonprofit group 9 percent

Other 15 percent

Source: National Christmas Tree Association

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