So many trees, so little time to buy them

For more harried holiday shoppers, a tree is optional.

Growing up in Denmark, Diana Frank not only had a live Christmas tree but lit live candles as well.

She and her family in Copenhagen would spend days making traditional decorations, like braided hearts, and string them across the ceiling until the time came to decorate the great, green symbol at the center of their holiday.

But it's been years since Ms. Frank, who now lives in New York with her husband, has enjoyed that fresh-pine holiday scent in her apartment. Like a growing number of Americans, she just hasn't had a tree.

Since their son has left home, this translator of Hans Christian Andersen tales has had neither the time nor the inclination for one. "Now it just seems a lot of work for not a whole lot of reasons, it just makes a mess," she says with a laugh. "To have a Christmas tree you need family and friends around."

As more than 20 million American families head to a corner lot or local tree farm to pick up a balsam fir or Colorado blue spruce, the Christmas-tree tradition finds itself fighting a new threat - and it's not that faux silver number stored away in your cousin's attic. The newest culprit is time. Last year, there was unprecedented spike in the number of people who had no tree at all - real or artificial.

The percentage of treeless households shot up to 32 percent last year, after averaging around 23 percent, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) in St. Louis. For many, the reasons ranged from empty nests to travel plans to simply not caring to have a tree. And it was partly a fluke in the calendar: There was one less weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year. But a key factor behind the rise of treeless households was also a jump in the ranks of those who felt too busy to buy one.

It's a challenge Christmas tree growers are keenly aware of.

"Going and getting a tree is somewhat time consuming, and people have a lot to do around the holidays," says Richard Moore, vice president of the NCTA and a tree farmer in Lansing, N.Y. "But it's so rewarding, we've got to remind people, help them relieve those childhood memories, and make sure parents still come for a tree after their kids have grown up."

At the Griswold Tree Farm in Killingworth, Conn., last Saturday, John Dean hoisted a balsam fir onto the top of his SUV as snow from the weekend's megastorm whipped around his car. He didn't seem to mind at all. Even though his kids are grown, getting a tree is simply a part of the holidays.

"To me it isn't natural, not natural whatsoever, not to have one," he says, as strains of "The Little Drummer Boy" mix in with the winter wind.

That special scent of pine

The smell and feel of a real tree are a central part of the Christmas tradition, he says. But even as he cringes at the thought of a treeless house in December, he admits that one day he and his wife may forgo the holiday ritual.

"It's a possibility, as our kids grow older and they move away we could theoretically spend Christmas with them, and you wouldn't want a tree up if you're away for a week or two, just for safety reasons," he says. "But as long as we stay here and everyone comes to us for the holidays, we'll have one."

That's that kind of thing that Debbie Griswold likes to hear. She and her husband have been farming trees on their 9-1/2 acres since 1984. Their sales have continued to grow, even as the percentage of people buying real trees has dropped.

Real, fake ... or none

In 1990, about half of all households had real trees, and half had fake trees, according to NCTA. Last year, only 30 percent of households had real trees, and 70 percent went with artificial. The number of people displaying fake trees dropped too.

Ms. Griswold understands that time's at a premium, her own in-laws have had a fake tree for 15 years.

"They don't want to have the hassle, the bother, the watering," she says. "That generation is on the go a lot. They're always traveling, off to Florida."

But she's found that some younger families - with kids in their teens, are also forgoing the annual tree.

"It becomes a hassle for them to come and do that traditional thing," she says, shrugging her shoulders and moving her feet a touch closer to the space heater in her garage turned storefront. "But, that's our society, I guess."

Still, the pull of tradition remains strong for many. Diana Frank says she loves to walk by the Christmas tree stands around New York just to enjoy the smell. And this year, her son and his girlfriend are visiting her and her husband at their country house Ithaca. So she's thinking that maybe, just maybe, they'll have a tree again.

And if they do, she says, "we'll have live candles."

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