Christmas tree mania: One is no longer enough

Go ahead, pack in the pine. One is good, two is better. And this year the grinch's job may be doubly hard. More Christmas trees appear to be leaving farms and lots in pairs.

"We sell a lot of double trees," says Billy Atherton, red-cheeked on the last Saturday before Christmas at Canaan Farm in Wenham, Mass. "More than last year."

Here on Boston's North Shore, where Puritan settlers decried decoration, merrymakers haul second firs to second floors. Outside Chicago, trees on balconies overflow with ornaments. Between Half Moon Bay and Healdsburg in northern California's Sonoma region, SUVs roll along with dual conifer trucks jutting over their hoods.

It's hard to see the definitive truth about Christmas trees for the forest of statistics. Methodologies change, numbers lag.

But experts on Christmas customs, interior design, and consumer habits confirm what more than a few buyers and sellers of trees readily note: The multi-tree movement - initially an extension of decorating drive of the 1990s, when McMansions arose and provided more halls to deck - might not have gone mainstream, but it's sprouting new growth.

"I have a client who's not sure yet how she wants to decorate her new house [permanently]," says Lisa Kawski, a Boston-area interior designer. "But she just bought an extra tree for the family room."

To already popular theme trees - think little baking utensils on a big-kitchen specimen, dolls and bows in a nursery - add the fact that children have gained sway on the decorating front. They are building their own vast collections of ornaments that demand display, if not on the white-lights-only show tree in the front room.

And some observers cite a miniboom in small "memorial trees," decorated with ribbons and photos, quietly reminding revelers of someone who's not there to share.

"Holidays and rituals are more and more important in turbulent news times. The scent and sounds of Christmas means more to people today," says Marian Salzman, coauthor of a dozen books, including "Trends for the Near Future" and "Buzz." "The extra trees are an expression of this desire for goodness."

Artificial trees still stand tall. In 2000, some 18 million more American homes displayed them in their undrying glory than displayed real trees, notes the National Christmas Tree Association, which tracks the $520 million trade.

Some 9.6 million households picked up new fakes in 2003, in addition to the 7.4 million who bought them the year before.

Longing for the real thing

Still, the number of households that purchased real trees also increased - by more than 1 million between 2002 and 2003 to 23.4 million, according to the NCTA. (That's still below 2001 sales, but the last few months of 2001 were a singularly sentimental time.)

A recent survey by Wirthlin Worldwide/Harris Interactive predicted the number will jump as much as 1.5 million this year. "There were certainly more trees 'in production' for 2004 than for previous years," says Sarah Hoffman, a nursery specialist at the US Department of Agriculture.

Rick Dungey, an NCTA spokesman, says his organization, sniffing a nascent trend, added a question last year about whether households purchased second trees. He says affirmative responses evidently came in under the 3.1 percent margin for error, because the number didn't register. The NCTA polled 1,001 households.

But trends can gather speed as fast as economies change. The NCTA also devotes a section of its website to e-mail from sellers offering real-time impressions. And in recent weeks, many wrote of a general concern that they wouldn't be able to meet demand this year.

One, in Louisiana, said "pretagging" of trees was up 130 percent over 2003. And one in Illinois noted that people were snapping up small trees, three- to five-footers. Another wrote of meeting more "converts" from artificial to real.

A national Christmas resurgence

"[That] could be an expression that this is a 'real' Christmas, and on a real Christmas you need real trees," says Penne Restad, an instructor in the department of history at the University of Texas, Austin, and an expert in the evolution of American Christmas customs.

She points to a rise in formal (front-hall display) and informal (living quarters) trees - ordinary homemakers' version of an old White House tradition. (Twin trees also reigned in Victorian England.)

And if there's a trend toward what she calls "somewhat overdecorated" homes, then there has also been a national Christian resurgence, she says.

That may have helped usher in more expansive displays of trees - even though she points to what she calls the trees' pagan aspect. "The idea was that it was the end of the year, the death of the sun," she explains.

To the confluence of those trends add one more - the endurance of good old competitive consumerism, Dr. Restad and others say. Result: More Christmas in the marketplace - and perhaps more trees to a customer.

Sellers, of course, are happy to be left with fewer trees for the wood chipper. But planters take note: In the past few weeks at Canaan Farm, at least three families have driven off with not two trees, says Brian, an employee, but three.

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