Santa Claus may need a bigger sleigh if he hopes to deliver this year to the growing number of American families buying real Christmas trees via the Internet or by mail order.
An estimated 330,000 people make their tree selections after gazing at computer screens or paging through catalogs, the National Christmas Tree Assn. said.
That's barely a blip on the holiday radar when compared with the 27.1 million real Christmas trees sold last year at chain stores, through nonprofit groups, from retail lots, harvested for a price from choose-and-cut farms or by permit from public lands.
But mail order numbers are becoming statistically significant, said Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the association in Chesterfield, Mo. "Better transportation and a more mobile population are seeing trees go to areas where they haven't gone before," Dungey said. "Convenience is a big factor, too."
Consumers spent an average $42.60 per tree in 2004, generating some $1.15 billion in retail sales of fresh Christmas trees, the association said. That compares with an estimated $791 million in 2003.
Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are the top tree-producing states, although Christmas tree farming is done in all 50 states.
Real trees continue outselling artificial trees by a ratio of 3-to-1, the association said. Nine million households reported buying an artificial tree last year, down some 600,000 from 2003, the association said, adding that the best sellers of the homegrown trees are balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine and white pine.
"I actually prefer the balsam fir because I love the fragrance," said Nigel Manley, who manages the Rocks Christmas Tree Farm in Bethlehem, N.H. "It will last at least six weeks inside the house. Fraser firs, on the other hand, don't have the same aroma, but they do have firmer branches. They can hold heavier ornaments."
Manley started selling Christmas trees from a Web site 12 years ago. The Internet part of the farm's business now accounts for about 15 percent of the total. Wreaths, garlands and other greenery make up another 35 percent. The rest is choose-and-cut on the Rocks Estate, a property owned and operated by the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which has 55,000 Christmas trees in the ground.
Mail order trees usually arrive two or three days after being cut, cleaned and boxed. They haven't been car-topped down a highway at 70 mph or left piled in a dark corner for days, so they have some real staying power - as in not shedding needles or turning brown before it's time to take the ornaments down.
"All the surveys show that what people like most about a real tree is fragrance and freshness," Manley said. "What they don't like is the mess and inconvenience of getting it home, especially people living in big cities like New York. Many urban dwellers are without vehicles."
Price is comparable to what you'd find on a regular retail lot, said Hal Gimlin, who owns and operates Omni Farm at West Jefferson, N.C.
"What you pay for is the shipping," said Gimlin, who sends Fraser fir Christmas trees from his farm high in the Blue Ridge Mountains to customers as far away as Alaska.
"We're really picky about what we send by mail order. When people pay an extra $20 or $30 for shipping, they want the best tree available. And since we're sending somebody a tree sight unseen, we offer a 100 percent guarantee. We get less than 1 percent complaints back. Some of that comes from broken tops in shipping."
No matter how or where you get your cut Christmas tree, here are some hints for keeping it fresh and relatively fire safe through the season:
l As soon as you get it home, "refresh" the tree by sawing an inch or two off the base and then standing it upright in water. That removes any resinous buildup and allows the tree to take in more moisture. Keep adding water until it stops absorbing it. Trees are capable of soaking up several gallons of water per day, especially when they're new to the house and to warm indoor temperatures.
l Place the tree in a stand that holds at least a gallon of pure tap water. Check the water level at least once a day to ensure the butt is submerged, otherwise you may be forced to make another cut to keep it from drying. Trees remain relatively fire-resistant as long as they're able to retain moisture.
l Use UL-approved lights and nonflammable decorations. Miniature lights are a good idea because they generate less heat, resulting in less drying.
l Never go to bed or leave home for any period of time with the tree lights left on.