On the Friday after Thanksgiving, when the world at large seemed to be mall-bound for shopping deals, Dan Parker supervises a small crew of young men with tree sap up to their elbows at a Christmas tree lot on Westshore Boulevard.
Several hundred soft, green and fragrant Fraser firs lie stacked on the ground under a yellow-and-white-striped tent canopy. Parker's crew will untie each one's string before standing the tree up and tapping it on the ground a few times to help the branches fall free. Then they'll slide the trees onto metal pipes for display.
Parker has been selling Christmas trees since he was 14. He's 65 now and shows no sign of slowing down.
This year's batch of trees came from his farm near Cashiers, N.C., just over the Georgia line. Parker says conditions were right. "It didn't rain for almost two months," he explains, "and a week ago, we got two inches of rain." The trees sucked it up and held onto it, keeping them fresh and full for their truck ride to Florida.
I've come to this lot in South Tampa looking for Bill and Gail Woodard, the folks from Bryson City, N.C., who have sold me a Christmas tree for the past decade or so. I wouldn't buy from anyone else for a coupla reasons. First and foremost, I like the Woodards. When my kids were little, they would play with Bill's young son, who always made the trip from North Carolina with his folks to sell their trees.
More importantly, however, they sell damn fine Christmas trees. And I know a thing or two about Christmas trees.
When I was a teenager growing up in Fort Lauderdale, my Key Club chapter at Stranahan High sold Christmas trees from a large vacant lot on Davie Boulevard every year. It was a great excuse to hang out with my buddies and our girlfriends without parental or adult supervision, make tips each time we took a sold tree out to someone's car and get out of school for days at a time. After all, somebody had to guard all those trees so they didn't walk off.
I got pretty good at knowing my trees: which ones were fresh, which ones were gonna die imminently.
I knew, for instance, that I never wanted to own a scotch pine, our most popular seller despite its always incredibly crooked trunk and sharp (but limp) long needles. I knew I loved the small number of firs we got each year, both Douglas and Fraser, for their incredible smell and soft strong branches. I won't even speak of the pure evil that was the blue spruce, a silvery blue devil that always ran about 12 feet high with dozens of hypodermic-sharp needles at the end of every branch. Beautiful, but deadly.
I have strong memories of those times, even 30 years later. Yes, underage beer drinking and making out with a girlfriend counts for a lot. But it was the trees I remember the most. They came in from Michigan in a tractor-trailer, arriving early in the morning, as we waited half-asleep in typical South Florida winter weather: 76 degrees Fahrenheit. The truck driver threw the back of the trailer open, and we climbed up to where the trees nearly touched the roof and crawled all the way forward to lie in a pile of two-day-old snow enveloped by the intoxicating smell of Christmas trees. I would chuck it all right now for just five more minutes in that nest.
So every year, I go looking for Bill Woodard, just as many households in Tampa Bay do with their own choice of tree lots. We're not alone.
An estimated 27 million people in the United States will buy a Christmas tree, a real tree, this year, reports the National Christmas Tree Association (yes, Virginia, there is an industry trade association for tree growers). That means that one in every four Americans is headed out to size up a tree, grab a branch to see if the needles are dry and haggle with a salesperson about the price.
The rest apparently get fake trees.
Not artificial trees, but fake trees. That's the terminology preferred by the National Christmas Tree Association, which devotes a page on its website to these plastic frauds. Here are a few facts about fake trees, according to NCTA: Most fake trees are manufactured in sweatshops in China for low wages; the PVC plastic in some fake trees can be a source of lead; other fake trees have wooden poles that were banned from the USA in 2004 because of a potentially harmful beetle; and fake trees were invented by a toilet brush maker.
(I was unable to locate a listing for the Artificial Christmas Tree Retailers of America or the like for its rebuttal.)
Rick Dungey mans the PR desk at NCTA and told me that the various natural disasters and hurricanes visited upon the country have not impacted the tree harvest this year (although some local farmers in Louisiana and Mississippi were wiped out by Katrina). For the most part, the trade group is busy organizing its tree drive to send thousands of free trees to military bases in this country and overseas.
For the record, most fresh Christmas trees are sold on "choose & cut" farms (something we don't have much of around these parts), with nurseries coming in second, followed by chain stores, retail lots like Bill Woodard's, and nonprofit groups, such as St. John's Greek Orthodox Church in South Tampa.
At St. John's on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the parents and students of the day school had sold 20 trees by 1:49 p.m. All of the profits here go to fund the day school and its 205 students, board chairman John Simon said as he hauled tree branches around the church's parking lot. They expect to sell 800 trees this year.
The direct involvement of St. John's in selling the trees is an exception in the nonprofit world, in which most schools and organizations simply rent out space for tree retailers, who pay them a flat fee or a per-tree cut of the action.
Back at the Woodard tree lot, Parker explains that he is selling his trees here until his friend Bill makes the trip down from North Carolina in about a week. Already, at least one longtime customer of Gail Woodard's wreaths and garlands has showed up, nearly in tears at the thought she might have to wait a week to get the coveted creations she needs for church right now.
Parker lives in Lutz and runs a nursery and landscaping business year-round. He stocks larger trees at his other lot near Lake Magdalene ("I'm known as the Big Tree Headquarters") for folks in well-to-do neighborhoods such as Avila who have cathedral ceilings that can accommodate 12-to-14-footers. Needless to say, Christmas is his favorite time of the year.
So I leave Dan Parker and his trees. I'll be back in a few days to renew my annual acquaintance with Bill and Gail. And to revel in that wonderful Christmas tree smell.