ALL year long, Lorenzo Martinez is a hard-driving Mexico City accountant, putting cold knowledge and conservative instincts together to save his clients every peso possible.
But come December, when the city's markets and florist shops turn green with Christmas trees, the same man goes all soft and fuzzy.
``No doubt it's expensive,'' says a sheepish Mr. Martinez as he hands over the equivalent of $90 plus change for a six-foot, conically perfect beauty that has his kids jumping for joy.
``But it's something we wait for all year, and I just can't resist when I see the pleasure it brings my wife, my children - and yes, me too.''
It is more traditionally Mexican to reconstruct a miniature manger scene every Christmas. The nativity's clay figures are molded in the likenesses of the holy family, the wise men, shepherds and their sheep, and various gift-bearing villagers.
But in this busier and more secular age of global cultural influences, it's the Christmas tree - a tradition that reached Mexico from its northern European origins via the United States - that reigns as the country's prime symbol of the season. The trees were trucked down weeks ago from the forests of Calgary, Alberta; Oregon; and Washington State.
``Today everybody in Mexico has to have a Christmas tree; it makes the holiday season,'' says Felipe Robledo, a Mexico City doctor who, like accountant Martinez, has plunked down nearly $100 for a tree.
``It used to be that people did the mangers more, but the trees are taking their place,'' Martinez adds. ``They're easier, the mangers took a lot of pieces and time.''
Many of the tree shoppers remember having Mexican-grown trees, cut from the hillsides, when they were young. Today, cutting wild trees is prohibited, although the government is encouraging the development of tree farms and local tree producers. ``But I remember the local trees were funny-shaped,'' says one woman as she watches for defects in the tree being turned in front of her by a lot boy. ``The imported ones are perfect.''
Yet some Mexicans see the northern trees as something of a cultural invasion. Sitting in a traffic jam caused in part by families double-parked outside a tree market, cab driver Luis Talavera complains that ``there wasn't this mania for Christmas trees before. Then everyone got a television and saw how Christmas is celebrated in the United States, and the trees became a necessity.''
Indeed, today Christmas trees are such a part of life in Mexico City that even the police tip their caps in deference. Normally it's illegal to carry large objects on top of cars in the city, but the police department has ordered its officers not to ticket families carrying their trees home on the car roof, Vermont-style, during the month of December.
And every family puts its tree on top of the car - no coaxing it into the trunk or across the back seat. ``It's part of the tradition to go home with the tree on top,'' says Eddie, a tree merchant in a high-end neighborhood. ``Given what they're paying, I have to think it's a status symbol to display the tree up there.''
Despite the high prices, Mexico has become the largest export market for US producers. This year the US and Canada sent 1.4 million trees to Mexico City.
In a response to a new Mexican regulation, all the trees had to be shaken to make sure they came in without bugs. So tree growers bought tree shakers, loath to give up a lucrative market.
But Pia Marengo isn't worried about bugs; what she wants is scent. As she does a fingertip test for woodsy perfume on her chosen evergreen at the Revolution Avenue market, Mrs. Marengo frowns at this year's substantially higher prices.
``I guess Christmas trees weren't in the NAFTA accord,'' she quips, paying $75 for a tree whose equivalent she claims cost $50 last year.
An evergreen for every occasion
Despite some grumbling, however, few customers appear to leave the market empty-handed.
There are child-sized trees for those wishing to pay ``only'' $25 or so, and even a few table-top, ersatz trees constructed from branches gathered from the market floor and poked into chicken-wire tree forms. Those go for $15.
As two young boys tie Dr. Robledo's tree to the top of his car, he shakes his head and laments, ``I just paid three-fourths of what a minimum-wage worker is paid in a month to put an imported tree in my house for a few weeks.
``It's troubling,'' he says, before adding, ``But if I let that bother me, we wouldn't do much of anything.''
Then the boys, their job done, solicit a tip. ``You see,'' Robledo says, handing over $3 more, ``Christmas is an expensive tradition.''