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SUNDAY, DECEMBER 17, 2006
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Philip Morgan, left, looks at Greenleaf Inc.’s selection of balled Christmas trees. Owner Dion Carroll, right, said he hopes customers  will prefer a tree they can re-plant after Christmas to increas-ingly popular artificial trees.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
Philip Morgan, left, looks at Greenleaf Inc.’s selection of balled Christmas trees. Owner Dion Carroll, right, said he hopes customers will prefer a tree they can replant after Christmas to increasingly popular artificial trees.

Having an artificial Christmas?
Plastic trees more popular with holiday consumers

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com· 340-2435

You can’t fault Charlie Brown. In 1965 he did his best, shunning a “big, shiny, aluminum tree” for a sad little real one.

“Gee,” said Linus. “Do they still make wooden Christmas trees?”

They do, Linus, but fewer and fewer opt to buy them.

By 1990, the tide had turned on America’s favorite Christmas symbol. That year, 35.4 million households put up real trees and 36.3 million displayed artificial ones, according to a consumer survey by the National Christmas Tree Association. In 2000, 32 million coped with pine needles on the carpet, with 50.6 million hanging baubles on polyethylene, terephthalate branches.

Since then, sales of real Christmas trees have dropped on a slope as steep as, well, a Christmas tree. Between 2000 and 2003, live tree sales dropped 36 percent. Artificial tree sales, most made in China, went up proportionally.

Decatur is not immune to the trend. Green Leaf Nursery owner Dion Carroll sold cut trees last year, but profit margins were low and sales as slow as sap on a winter day. This year he’s put his efforts in a different direction: Christmas trees with balled roots wrapped in burlap, which he sells for between $69 and $119. They lack the hinged branches and pre-installed lights of their plastic counterparts, and they don’t come in a convenient box, but when the season is over you can lug them to the yard and plant them.

Alden Foster, manager of ACE Hardware of Decatur on Sixth Avenue Southeast, said sales of artificial trees — he doesn’t sell real ones — have been unusually brisk this year. He attributes sales to the fact that his $39 offering comes pre-lit.

“People don’t have as much time to deal with real trees these days,” Foster said. He said many of his customers also say they are opting out of their real-tree traditions due to allergies and fear of fires.

Carroll said artificial trees are not the only problem facing retailers hoping for a profit from the live version. Some of the few stores that still carry them, he said, sell live trees at or below cost as a loss leader to get people flush with pre-Christmas dollars into their store.

“It’s hard to compete with someone willing to sell it for less than they pay for it,” Carroll said.

Business concerns aside, Carroll said he does not worry much about any broader religious significance of the trend toward artificial trees. Most historians believe the Christmas tree’s roots extend not to Bethlehem but to pagan times. Druids might struggle with the trend, he figures, but Christians don’t have much to worry about.

That said, Carroll resisted family pressure for an artificial tree this year.

“Something about putting a hunk of plastic in the corner just doesn’t do it for me,” Carroll said laughing.

Carroll hopes his ball-and-burlap trees become popular, but said sales have been slow so far this year.

“I like the smell, I like the looks and I even like the thought of having a live tree,” Carroll said. “I wouldn’t want a plastic poinsettia in my house either.”

It’s tough to beat the variety of the non-biodegradeable version, though. TreeClassics.com offers trees that range from its 30-foot Green Emerald Giant — complete with 21,100 lights, 64,800 lush polyvinyl chloride tips and a price tag of $12,000 — to the ingenious Oregon half tree, designed to “lay flat against a wall conserving space yet creating the illusion of a full sized tree.” That one’s on sale, at half price, for $170.

And don’t fret about losing the smell that filled your home as a child. Tree fragrances abound on the Internet, conveniently stored in a spray can and guaranteed to give you a cozy Christmas olfactory experience for a full holiday season. If you prefer a more biblical version, you can opt for a can of spray-on olive tree fragrance. Also available: an ornament that emits a high-pressure mist of pine perfume on your tree at predetermined intervals.

Ah, the sweet smell of synthetic alpha pinene and bornyal acetate.

But this, of course, is not the season for cynicism. So be of good cheer, suggests Carroll, and don’t get too hung up on whether your tree has attic spider webs nestled in its branches rather than a bird’s nest.

As Linus pointed out to one who over-analyzed the celebration of Christmas:

“Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”

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