All the talents dealmakers hone throughout the year -- methodical due-diligence skills, shrewd negotiating tactics, wiley gamesmanship -- face a brutal test each December when they structure their most complicated transaction: finding the right family Christmas tree. (If, of course, they are wont to find a tree at all. For other holiday decorating challenges, see a related story.)
The right size, shape and variety of tree are just a few factors to consider before acquiring and installing the perfect conifer, which will be long embedded in family photo albums, children's memory banks and the envious hearts of colleagues and friends. Perfection, of course, is a relative term. And beyond the tree itself, there's the eternal challenge of selecting tasteful ornaments, the age-old debate between tinsel and garland and, more recently, considerations like "green" trees. And all these needling decisions must be made under tight deadlines during the most frantic time of the year.
One solution, besides buying an artificial tree or ordering a tree for delivery in a FedEx box: Contact a tree professional. A handful of Christmas specialists scattered throughout the U.S. are available to help you find the perfect evergreen, then install it in your living room. For a fee -- sometimes hefty -- some will decorate it, water it throughout the holidays, then come and dispose of it afterward.
Mark Rohlfs, for example, leaves his 80-acre tree farm in Oregon every Nov. 1 and heads south to Los Angeles to set up his Santa & Sons tree lot. But Rohlfs also installs Christmas trees in the homes of L.A.'s rich and powerful. His clients include Hollywood talent and entertainment industry dealmakers, all seeking oversized trees for their oversized homes.
The typical American household can only accommodate a five- to seven-foot tree. But for those with space, and money, Christmas tree stars like Rohlfs can install much larger specimens. "The most common size is your nine- to 12-foot sizes," says Rohlfs, although he often installs much larger trees, occasionally exceeding 20 feet. A 10-footer will usually cost around $425, plus $75 or more for delivery and installation, affordable on a dealmaker's salary.
In some cases, Rohlfs' high-end customers will buy more than one family tree during the holidays. "Some of the homes buy trees early and have us replace them halfway through the season with fresh trees," Rohlfs says. "Then we'll bring a replacement tree, especially for homes that have big holiday parties planned."
It may seem excessive to purchase a backup tree, but Rohlfs and his peers have handled even stranger, occasionally gravity-defying, requests. One year, Rohlfs and crew arrived at the home of a network television executive, only to discover that no door on the ground floor could accommodate the 14-foot, 600-pound Noble Fir they were delivering. There were double doors on the balcony, however, so the tree wound up making its grand entrance from the second floor. Since then, that particular customer has been put on a size budget -- 10 feet or under. Rohlfs, in fact, keeps a database of customers, noting height and width preferences and special needs, such as long staircases.
"Years ago, I learned when to say no," Rohlfs says. "Without a second thought, people will ask you to do the impossible. They'll ask you to do stuff that's just flat-out goofy."
According to one of the only compendiums on the subject, Phillip Snyder's "The Christmas Tree Book," the first Christmas tree business in the U.S. was launched in 1851. Mark Carr, a Catskill Mountains farmer in New York, brought two sleds full of trees down to Manhattan's Washington Market. He established a tree lot on the corner of Greenwich and Vesey streets and quickly sold out. Others copied Carr and by 1880, more than 200,000 trees were being sold in Washington Market as the Christmas tree tradition branched out. By 1909, the U.S. Forest Service estimated that five million Christmas trees had been cut nationwide and that one American family in four had a tree.
According to Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association, today the "real tree" business (defined as either precut trees or those cut down at a tree farm) is a $1.2 billion industry, with 28.6 million trees sold in 2006. And almost all of that business is transacted within a three-week period. "The Christmas tree industry is just now maturing," Rohlfs says. "It's still dominated on the retail side by mom-and-pop operations or big-box stores like Home Depot Inc., but we're just now starting to see a class of professional retailers emerge. You used to put $20K together and throw yourself together a little tree lot. Now, I have $200K invested on this lot before I sell the first tree. That takes a lot of the amateurs and the wannabes out of the picture. So you're starting to see the emergence of people who are more professional, more dedicated and have committed more resources over time to building up their business."
Russ Whited, who founded Whited 'Farm Fresh' Christmas Trees Inc. in Fort Myers, Fla., in 1964, agrees. "When I first started, all my business was in Collier County [Florida], and they had 87 registered millionaires," Whited says. "There must be 87 billionaires there now." The roster of wealthy clients isn't the only thing expanding -- the season's length has too. "This year, we started decorating the first of October. We have 18 people working every day, seven days a week. It's just amazing how it's mushroomed."
Whited will install oversized trees for his wealthy clientele. "We do a lot of large trees. I've been on the phone with people looking for 17- or 18-foot trees. We'll bring in anything from 30-foot tall on down. If it's over that size, it's a special order."
Oversized trees tend to be more expensive, but the cost is more a matter of inventory than size. Christmas trees grow about a foot a year. Once they reach about 10 feet, farmers usually cut them down, to grow more reasonably sized trees. Saving big trees is akin "to storing boxes on a warehouse floor," Dungey says. "They take up space."
To secure big trees, Whited works with contract growers in Michigan, Oregon and North Carolina and visits all three locations at least three times a year. He'll deliver a tree almost anywhere. "I work internationally. We ship trees to Bermuda, we ship trees to Central America and the Caribbean. In the past we've shipped trees to the Far East, Hong Kong and Singapore."
Whited also provides decorating services for both the tree and outside the house. "Our minimum decoration is $2,000," he says. "We don't do anything in any home valued at less than $1 million. I'm sorry to say that, but that's just the way it turned out. For most of the people we deal with, money is not an object. What they're looking for is a good job. They're looking for someone congenial to work with them."
Whited contracts out his home-decorating services and does everything from coordinating the tree lights and ornaments to decorating the gatehouse of a mansion. One popular request is to put a decorated Christmas tree on a wheeled platform. The tree can then be rolled into any part of the house. Whited's services even expand into such basic maintenance as watering. Whited once installed a Christmas tree for a wealthy German family that didn't realize live trees need water. A few weeks later, he received a message saying, "The Tannenbaum had gone kaput."
Besides tree installations and decorations, John Egan, of Egan Acres Tree Farm in Riverdale, N.Y., also provides removal services for large trees. "People call me up when they want a big tree removed," he says. "It's either a nuisance to the house or it's gonna fall on the house, wreck the driveway or wreck the foundation. I'll remove it for them and plant two trees for the one I take out." Egan claims to have installed the largest Christmas trees ever in the U.S., including a 120-foot Norway Spruce in 2003 in Miami, a record he expects to top this year with a 125-foot spruce for a public installation in California. How big is that? The Rockefeller Center tree is usually between 65 and 90 feet tall.
The Christmas tree tradition is a fairly recent addition to the holiday it commemorates. The earliest references to Christmas trees were in 16th-century Latvia and Estonia. On Christmas Eve, local merchants would carry an evergreen decorated with roses to the town center, where the locals would dance around it, then burn it. According to Snyder, trees that stayed green in winter were thought to have magical powers and were celebrated in pagan festivals. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church condemned celebrating Christmas in this manner, and trees in the home were rarely seen until the 18th century, mostly in Germany.
During the 19th century, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularized the Christmas tree in England. In "A Christmas Tree", a short story published in 1850, Charles Dickens referred to a Christmas tree as a "pretty German toy", sealing his strong association with the tree tradition. Most of the Christmas trees found in Europe at that time were small affairs that resided on table tops. But when they reached America, Christmas trees went big time, going floor to ceiling. Pines, cedars and spruces were initially the most popular choices. By the 1880s, evergreens had become the dominant Christmas-tree type, since they provided better support for ornaments and did not dry out as quickly.
So what makes a good Christmas tree? "The species has to be one that lasts a long time, has a nice dark-green color, with strong branching, an even taper, meaning an even-coned shape with a straight leader [the top]," Rohlfs says. "And a tree that's fresh. I can't overstate how important that is."
For Whited, the quality of a tree can be measured by the lushness of the limbs, or, as he refers to them, whirls. Whited says a tree is a winner if "you can't throw a cat between the whirls." Noble or Frasier firs remain the most popular species, noted for their durability. Rohlfs has also begun installing a new species to the U.S. called the Nordmann Fir, which originated in the Republic of Georgia and has been only growing in America for a decade.
For high-end Christmas tree peddlers, just being in the holiday industry makes them feel good. "The reason I got into this business is that there's not a lot of bad people this time of year," Whited says. "People are a lot nicer now than, say, Easter or Columbus Day."
"I love this business," adds Rohlfs. "There's a certain reward when the families hit the tree-lot gate and they cut the kids loose. There's this unbridled joy in these kids' faces. And I get this 185 times a day. I get to share Christmas with the 4,000 or 5,000 people we sell trees to every year. I get to share a little bit of their Christmas." As long, of course, as the tree is perfect.
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