16 December 2009

Oh! Christmas Tree!

The Wall Street Journal

T.J. Wisner used to buy a small Christmas tree for the downstairs floor of his home in Grand Blanc, Mich. Four years ago, though, after getting the idea from an art fair, he opted for something different: a "beer tree," bottles of holiday brews stacked on a terraced mound of inverted metal buckets.

While the family has a separate artificial tree upstairs, the "beer tree" has become the real Christmas tree. Each year, the Wisners decorate the structure with Christmas cards and pile gifts around it. "This is actually where we have Christmas morning," says Mr. Wisner, a 59-year-old life coach and speaker. "The day after Christmas, we blind taste the beers." Then the tree goes back into the Christmas tree storage bag until next year.

The centuries-old tradition of the Christmas tree is undergoing a rethink. Enterprising—and penny-pitching—people are crafting alternative trees using everything from tumbleweeds to bricks. For those who want to avoid a big do-it-yourself project, manufacturers and retailers are rolling out their own models that only barely resemble a traditional tree storage bag.

Crate and Barrel's CB2 brand is selling a new tree with white polypropylene bristles that the company advertises as "faux fir" and "unapologetically artificial." Williams-Sonoma Inc.'s West Elm and designer David Stark this holiday season introduced cone-shaped weave trees that look like they are made out of straw. And the company's catalog this year features a tree painted on a wall and decorated with a garland for sale at West Elm.

"We know that a lot of our customers are in lofts or apartments and might not have space for Christmas tree storage" says spokeswoman Abigail Jacobs.

The proliferation of offbeat trees may be a sign of a backlash against holiday consumerism—especially during these days of high unemployment. People are "trying to claim Christmas for their own in a way that doesn't fit with how Madison Avenue has defined it with thier Christmas tree storage bags," says Nancy Koehn, a retail historian at Harvard Business School.

The Christmas tree gets a makeover with more consumers making or buying alternative options -- some of which don't even try to look like a real tree. And with many consumers looking for ways to cut costs this holiday season, the pricey real or traditional artificial Christmas tree storage bags may not be in the budget this. Indeed, tree sales declined last year, according to a poll released last August by the National Christmas Tree Association, a group for growers and retailers of real trees, and Harris Interactive. Consumers purchased 28.2 million farm-grown Christmas trees last year, down 10% from the previous year, and 11.7 million artificial trees, down 35%.

"People are looking at every which way to save a buck but also continue with the Christmas spirit," says Toon Van Beeck, a senior industry analyst for IBISWorld, a market research firm in Santa Monica, Calif. Mr. Van Beeck expects tree sales to decline again this year.

The right price has led to quirky purchases. Debora Volansky, of New Milford, Conn., bought a purple tinsel Christmas tree from a pool-and-patio store last year. It was priced at $60—cheaper than your average artificial tree—"because no one wanted it," she says.

Her kids now decorate the tree with an ocean theme (This year—in lieu of a star—there's an octopus on top). "It adds color to the house, which I think is great," says the 42-year-old owner of a Web conferencing company, who already owned a pink bubble-gum colored tree which she stores in her attic in multiple tree storage bags. "The holidays are about the sparkle."

Some manufacturers are trying to appeal to eco-conscious customers who want to eschew the average artificial tree—made of plastic and metal—which growers of real trees have long denounced as neither biodegradable nor recyclable. Büro North, a design studio in Melbourne, Australia, says it uses minimal energy to produce the plywood trees it began selling online this year. The company, which says it has been getting 100 orders a week, packages the trees flat in recycled cardboard and which may then be put away in special bags made for Christmas tree storage. PossibiliTree LLC, in Northfield, Minn., started selling handmade wooden trees, which it says don't contain any toxic materials, online last year.

David Barshow's Mountain Dew tree began, in part, as a creative recycling project. In 2006, Mr. Barshow, a student at California State University, Chico, and his three roommates constructed a tree out of 400 empty Mountain Dew cans, which took three months to drink.

"There was an element of class that was lost when compared to a real tree, but everybody in Chico thought it was really cool," says Mr. Barshow, now 25, a graphic designer in Menlo Park, Calif.

They never made the tree again. "Our bodies just couldn't handle that much sugar after that," Mr. Barshow says. But the Web site they created for their tree, Mdewtree.com, still got 1,000 hits a day around Christmas last year and continues to attract new fans on Facebook and MySpace. "People email once or twice a month with questions on how to make their own and about storing Christmas trees," he says.

Some have gone as far as to make the nontraditional tree a household tradition. Mark Doeffinger, a landscape gardener in Plymouth, Mich., says he has been making his own Christmas trees for nearly three decades, ever since his dog knocked over the family tree and his wife was upset about the mess it created.

He has constructed trees out of different materials each year. One year it was hangers, and another year, old books. Mr. Doeffinger, who this year made a tree out of bricks and light bulbs, says Christmas has become a secular holiday that deserves a nontraditional tree. "The old-timer tree is really passe," he says. "The fake ones people don't like because they're fake. So I'm saying let's try something really funky."

The National Christmas Tree Association says such creations don't count as Christmas trees. "If you make a pyramid object out of bricks or whatever, that's a decoration, maybe, but it's not a Christmas tree," says Rick Dungey, spokesman for the Chesterfield, Mo.-based association. "To me, a Christmas tree is a conifer tree grown on a farm."

But some people have grown up with a different idea of what defines a Christmas tree. Mary Anderson, of Glendale, Calif., says her family used to decorate a tumbleweed with dried chillies and ornaments each year and remembers gathering around it to open gifts. The plant was much easier to come across in New Mexico where she lived and much easier to deal with in terms of storing artificial Christmas trees.

"It literally just rolled up at our door," she says. "It became sort of a tradition. It was a family joke."

Now, for the first time in years, her family is shopping for one this season to get Ms. Anderson's eight-year-old great-niece, who lives in Albuquerque, involved in the tradition. "My dad's gone, and it was just such an amazing, funny thing when he started that," she says.

Folks who own quirky trees warn that they draw stares from visitors. A few years ago, Brandi Duvall found a 10-foot-tall artificial tree that was marked 75% off, making the final price $570. The catch: It was meant to be placed upside down on the stand and had to be stored in a special tree storage bag.

Each year, the tree has caused a buzz in her neighborhood. "I had one couple come over last year, and they said, 'We just got to see your tree,' "esays Ms. Duvall, 34, of Springville, Utah. "It just grows on people."

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