In Dark Economic Times, Christmas Tree Sales Shine

A group of fourth-grade students carry a Christmas tree. i i

A group of fourth-grade students help carry a Christmas tree at Valley View Tree Farm in Burlington, Wis., last week. Scott Anderson/Journal Times/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Anderson/Journal Times/AP
A group of fourth-grade students carry a Christmas tree.

A group of fourth-grade students help carry a Christmas tree at Valley View Tree Farm in Burlington, Wis., last week.

Scott Anderson/Journal Times/AP
Scout the dog pulls a Christmas tree to a pile outside of the Superior, Wis., Target store. i i

Scout the dog pulls a Christmas tree to a pile outside of the Superior, Wis., Target store. Jed Carlson/Daily Telegram/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jed Carlson/Daily Telegram/AP
Scout the dog pulls a Christmas tree to a pile outside of the Superior, Wis., Target store.

Scout the dog pulls a Christmas tree to a pile outside of the Superior, Wis., Target store.

Jed Carlson/Daily Telegram/AP

In the midst of all the digital gimcracks and electronic gewgaws that will litter the 2008 holiday season, the simple green Christmas tree represents a fixed point in a flummoxed world. Fact is, as the economy darkens, Christmas tree sales look pretty bright.

"Sales are very good," says Linda Gragg, director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association in Boone, N.C. "We just finished a 12-day consumer show. It went very well. People were saying they weren't having as much under the tree this year as they have in past Christmases, but they do want a tree."

Many American families "still want to have a traditional Christmas, despite the economy," Gragg says. In 2007, the organization sold between 5 million and 5.5 million trees, and she expects to sell at least that many this year. Maybe more.

It's a tradition. And traditions, according to essayist Ellen Goodman, "are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can't even describe."

Some say the ritual of trimming a Christmas tree has pagan roots. Others trace it from 16th century European churches, through Norman Rockwell homes and Charlie Brown cartoons.

The image of a Christmas tree is something people hold on to. Like a wedding photo. The memory of an Easter egg hunt. A childhood dreidel. (Not surprisingly: "Sales of dreidels are up this year," says Mandana Nowroocian of the Dreidels and More store in Chicago.)

The Christmas tree "signifies home and family and tradition and all the comfort values that people still want," says Martin J. Irvine, professor of communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University and a card-carrying semiotician.

He adds that a tree is "typically not a high price-point item, but it has high symbolic value."

Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association in Salem, Ore., agrees. "We're seeing an upward trend in orders, even though there is cautiousness all around us."

Ostlund says he has seen this phenomenon before — during slow economic moments in the early 1990s and in 2001. When the economy tanks, Christmas tree sales soar.

"Orders remain strong," Ostlund says, despite the gloomy state revenue forecast and rising unemployment.

Ironically, those factors contribute to the steady sales, he says. Greater availability of labor and lower fuel rates help keep prices down. This year, Ostlund's conglomeration of growers in Oregon and Washington will ship more than 10 million trees — about one-third of the country's total production — across the country.

Over the past 20 years, the noble fir, he says, has replaced the Douglas fir as the bestselling tree, because of the noble fir's graceful branches, holiday aroma and deep green color. "Plus its 'keepability,'" Ostlund says. "That is how long it stays fresh post-harvest."

Trees are a good value, he says. It can take up to nine years to grow a tall tree. But trees of 6 feet or so often cost less than $75. The price has been flat for some years, but Christmas trees from Oregon still bring in $125 million every year.

And the tree has continued, for centuries, to be a symbol of the importance of friends and family, Ostlund says. "When the economy tightens up, people look for the human side of the holiday."

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