The great Christmas tree debate intensifies

Ed Seltzer says that this year, for the first time, more artificial Christmas trees will light up American living rooms than real trees.

That kind of talk needles Donald McNeil, who says Mr. Seltzer has tried to spruce up his sales figures.

Mr. Seltzer's reasoning: Add up sales of artificial Christmas trees over the last six years and it means about 34 million will be in American living rooms this season. On the other hand, only about 30-31 million real trees are sold each year, the president of the nation's largest artificial tree manufacturer points out.

''His facts are as fake as his product,'' says Mr. McNeil, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association in Milwaukee, which represents more than 8,000 tree growers nationwide. He claims Seltzer's sales estimates for artificial trees are far too high. Based on his association's surveys, he says, this year 39 percent of households will have real trees, 31 percent artificial, and the rest no tree at all.

While they wrangle over who's winning the Christmas tree war, Seltzer and McNeil do agree on one thing: This year's battle is reaching a high pitch. Tree sales traditionally peak this weekend, with Americans expected to spend more than $600 million on cut trees and about $250 million on a far smaller number of artificial trees.

When artificial tree sales surged in the early 1970s, says McNeil, tree growers reacted by greatly reducing plantings. But in recent years, sales of real trees have grown modestly at about 5 percent a year. After some years of shortage, he says, supply should be adequate this year, with prices no higher than 1981.

Meanwhile, Seltzer reports ''near record'' artificial tree reorders from retailers last week. Surprisingly, says Seltzer, who heads the American Tree Company, a subsidiary of Papercraft Corporation, the high end of the price range - $70-$100 - is particularly strong. A questionnaire returned by 100,000 artificial tree buyers, he says, pinpoints the main selling points as economy (one tree lasts for years) and safety (flame-resistance). New styles such as a realistic upturned soft-needle-pine look also help keep sales strong, he says.

Tree growers, on the other hand, emphasize the joy of having ''a real tree for a real Christmas. It smells so good and it's a part of the tradition,'' says McNeil. More than 2,000 growers have joined the association in the past 2 1/2 years, and plantings are strongly up, he says. In five to eight years, when the trees are ready to sell, ''consumers will really be in the driver's seat'' on prices, he says.

This longing for Christmas tradition has particularly helped the small-but-growing ''choose and cut'' operations, where customers pick out their trees while they're still in the field, cut them, and take them home, says McNeil. Despite the distance of some growers from urban areas, ''many people will drive as much 200 miles'' to look for a tree, he says.

''It's a family outing, a happy time,'' explains Robert Russell, owner of the Greenmantle Tree Farm in tiny Princeton, Mass., some 45 miles west of Boston. ''It takes time to agree on the tree. They have to decide on just the one that's their tree.'' To him, it's much more personal than grabbing a tree at the shopping mall or grocery store. ''That's too much like picking up a can of beans ,'' he says.

And for those who are unable, or too busy, to look for a tree, David Larsen has another idea: shop by mail. For $25 in the East and $30 west of the Mississippi, his Brookfield Nursery and Tree Plantation in Blacksburg, Va., ships out a fresh-cut 68-inch white pine in a specially made box that arrives within three days.

''We're looking for just a tiny portion of the market,'' including shut-ins and Southerners unhappy with dried-out trees cut months earlier and shipped in from the North, says Mr. Larsen. Although he's selling only 1,000-2,000 trees by mail now, he'll have 30,000-40,000 ready for harvest in time for the Christmas tree glut of the late-1980s. But by then he hopes to have thousands of satisfied customers pining for his product.

And if they don't sell? ''You just leave them in the ground,'' he says. ''They'll be that much bigger for the next year.''

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