'Oh, Christmas tree . . . '

BOSTON, as may be expected from a city steeped in American history, takes its Christmas traditions seriously. For the 37th consecutive year, the trees on Boston Common are shining with thousands of multicolored lights. And in the Back Bay, at the top of the stairs to the Prudential Center, stands a giant tree bedecked in tiny glowing bulbs - the 13th annual gift from Nova Scotia to Boston.

But the McCue family's Christmas-tree tradition may beat them all.

Arthur McCue, owner of the Fanueil Hall Flower Market, has been selling Christmas trees in downtown Boston for 30 years. He says his late father, Henry McCue, known to longtime Bostonians as the Christmas-tree king, began selling trees here in the 1930s, Mr. McCue says.

''All these were streets,'' he says, gesturing toward the red-bricked pedestrian mall. But mall or no mall, ''we always did a good business here,'' McCue says.

This year is no exception. McCue says sales are ''very good,'' disputing some merchants' complaints that record-breaking warm temperatures here have evaporated Bostonians' Christmas spirit. ''You've got to have a tree,'' he explains.

Outside the flower market, hundreds of trees - spruce, Scotch pine, and balsam fir - lean against every available pillar. There are tiny live trees that can sit on an apartment-size kitchen table, and there are trees that will brush a cathedral ceiling. The hottest-selling tree at McCue's is shop is the balsam fir, which growers say New Englanders prefer over the national favorite, Scotch pine.

This year McCue ordered about 2,400 trees, which began arriving from Nova Scotia the day after Thanksgiving. ''They have the best trees up there,'' he says.

McCue's opinion may needle American growers, who say home-grown trees are generally superior to those from Canada. In the past 20 years, ''Christmas-tree growing (in the US) has been elevated to a science,'' says Jane Svinicki of the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents 10,000 growers through 35 state organizations.

Most Christmas trees in the United States are grown on plantations, where they are sheared, fertilized, and sprayed with insecticide every year to make them bushy and full, Ms. Svinicki explains. Canadian growers, who had 50 percent of the US market in the '50s, now capture only 5 percent, because consumers don't buy their ''wild,'' unshaped trees, she says.

But in recent years ''they (Canadian growers) got smart,'' says Ted Howard, professor of forestry economics at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

The Canadian province of New Brunswick expects to soon reach its goal of 1 million trees planted; growers in Nova Scotia have started shearing and shaping their trees; and more farmers in eastern Quebec are using idle farmland for Christmas-tree growing, he says.

With the Christmas-tree industry growing in both Canada and the US, Dr. Howard and the National Christmas Tree Association are forecasting a tree surplus within three or four years. ''With stagnant demand and growing supply, you'd expect a downward pressure on prices,'' Howard says.

Svinicki says the average price of a six-foot Christmas tree this year is $19 or $20, although it's higher in urban areas where vendors pay higher rents. In downtown Boston, McCue says his trees are sold according to beauty, not height. For his own home he selected a ''triple balsam,'' which has a ''fuller, fluffier needle,'' he says.

''You have three types of balsam. The branch of the single balsam is flat. Double is fluffy, and triple is real fluffy.''

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