Ho, ho, ho. Merry Backache.

Saturday thru Tuesday, December 5-13, 1998, Irvine, California - Working a Christmas tree lot is something I've wanted to do for some time. It just seems so traditional, so peaceful, so Christmas-ey. I guess I have the image acquired from some movie, where the protagonist goes to the corner tree lot, and there's an old man sitting on a crate next to a fire in a metal barrel. Snow is falling, traffic rolls by, and somehow, through some small miracle, the conflict of the story is resolved right there on the tree lot.

Picking out the family Christmas tree is an act that begs for tradition. It is so very different from what we do the rest of the year and it really brings the Christmas season into the home. It doesn't matter if you buy your tree from the corner lot or a tree farm. It doesn't matter if you snowshoe through miles of forest or if you bring the artificial tree down from the attic. No matter where you get your Christmas tree, when you drag it into the living room and begin to decorate it, you are welcoming the holidays and capping off another year. Working on a tree lot seemed to be a way to be a part of this tradition, a way to share it with many people.

So, here I am, living my dream. I am working on a real Christmas tree lot, in southern California. There is no falling snow, but the Christmas spirit is alive. My very first job on a Christmas tree lot is that of Water Boy, the guy who fills the tree stand bowls with water. It rained hard last night and this California clay did not absorb a drop, so I'm sloshing around, lugging a half-mile of hose through the crowd, who are all miffed at me, because the crazy hose is leaking and spewing even more water onto the mud field we are calling a tree lot.

Dedee and Eric Johnson with their twins, Jack and Michelle. Their other son, Nathan, is at school.

Eric Johnson and his wife, Dedee run this lot, one of the largest I've ever seen. It is quite an operation, with a display of several hundred trees of five varieties, a tent filled with wreaths and garland, a tent for flocked trees, a shaded area for storing trees, and plenty of employees - mostly high school kids - milling about.

"I've got this theory that a Christmas tree is a way of closing out the year," says Johnson. "It's like; 'I had a great year, so let's have a big tree!'" He is hoping, of course, that a lot of people in Irvine, California have had a very good year.
Christmas Tree Primer

The 4-door sedan of Christmas trees. These grow quickly and are the least expensive. They are sheared into a perfect teardrop and have few gaps. It is possible to get a Douglas Fir that looks just like the Douglas Fir you got last year, and like the one you got the year before...

The SUV of Christmas trees, with rugged, alpine looks... and imperfections, like gaps between the rows of branches (for big ornaments) and "holes" with no branches. "That's why God invented walls" a lady tells me." Look for one or two rebel base branches that careen way out to the coffee table. Noble people are great at saying "OK, the couch goes in front of here" and this part goes in the corner." A Noble devotee actually will turn up his or her nose at a perfectly groomed Douglas, much like that person who just passed you in the Range Rover...

Hardy, dignified and nicely shaped - the limosine of Christmas trees. The underside of the needles is light colored - almost silvery.

The Cadillac of Christmas trees. These are very aromatic. There are bubbles of sap (aroma pockets, if you're selling the tree) on the trunk. Crack one open with your fingernail and sap will ooze out, leaving a sharp, piney fragrance on your finger and throughout your house for at least a day. Crack them all open and the smell will make you loopy.

Cute and fluffy - the Volkswagon Bug of Christmas trees. They tend to look like a ball of needles and they won't hold heavy ornaments worth a darn.

Johnson has had a pretty tough year, with his nineteenth season selling Christmas trees. The lot he used last year is growling with bulldozers at the moment, as part of the Irvine construction boom, and he could not secure this lot until after Thanksgiving. "We usually sell pumpkins in November," he says. "That helps us get the bugs out of our system and let customers know we're here. It also helps with the overhead, but this year we couldn't open until much later."

Eric Johnson is a genial man who operates heavy equipment when he's not selling trees. His employees enjoy working for him, which was one of the reasons I chose this lot. "He seems to genuinely care about people, doesn't he?" says Nicole, one of his cashiers.

The way he communicates with customers is quite remarkable, considering his career has mostly been in hotel maintenance - not a customer oriented vocation. His mild manner and gentle delivery help him take a strong stand without confrontation. Several times, he stops when he passes by me, gives me a silly grin and tells me what a good job I'm doing. He has a way of talking, including pauses and inflection, that leave you anxious to hear his next words.

I spend the first few days doing odd chores, like assembling tree stands and watering trees. One of the guys asks me; "are you helping people load their trees?" That's where the money is." I blow this off, because I'm not here to make money, I'm here on a journalistic endeavor.

The legendary Santa Ana winds arrive and I spend hours chasing trees and tying them up against the wind. Johnson let me park my camper in his lot for the week, and the first night, Ana practically blows my trailer over. I try to work in it the next morning, but it is shaking so hard I actually get seasick. The field is covered with hay, like a big manger, at least it was, until the wind blew it all into my face. "I wore goggles one year," says Eric. The wind has an eerie howl and I feel like Dr. Zivago - "Lara! Lara!"

This is hardly the experience I had dreamed of. It is much faster paced, with a lot more work; cutting and drilling trees, carrying them to their display stands and watering them. After hefting a dozen 8-foot Douglas Firs halfway across the manger, I start work on smaller trees - much smaller. The city won't even let us have a fire barrel.

Johnson sells wreaths, stands and mistletoe as well as trees, but little else. "One year I had a Santa Claus," he tells me. "I bought an expensive Polaroid camera and gear - and then my two Santas cancelled on me. I've not recovered from that one." He has a neat habit of stopping right after a punchline or a striking remark, such as "then my two Santas cancelled on me." and giving you a wide-open, goofy grin that gives his story animation.

Want to open your own tree lot?
Here's How!

Johnson tells me about the "Delivery from Hell." It was for an eight-foot Douglas and the delivery guy threw it in the back of his pickup truck. "Well, he stopped at a light and someone pulled up beside him," Johnson says. "He got in a race and lost the tree. He didn't realize it until he pulled up the driveway and turned around to back up. Well, the customer was waiting in the driveway and he was pretty puzzled that the driver arrived without a tree. My guy just took off and went back and got the tree. He goes back to the house, thinking he'll tell the customer it just fell off the truck and give him a discount or something. Ends up it was the wrong tree."

Irvine is an hour away from the Johnsons home in Lake Elsinore, so Dedee and their three children stay at the lot only on weekends. Romping around a Christmas tree lot isn't a ball of fun for an eight year old, but they make do, playing among the trees, and building forts out of hay bales. "Sure, it's tough on the family," says Dedee. "This is our holiday season! But it has helped us. Last year we were able to take a vacation; we drove to Maine."

Working like a busy elf the entire month of December doesn't steal his Christmas spririt from Eric Johnson - he makes the best of it. "We set up here two days before Thanksgiving and we have friends over for a little cookout. Each year I see the same customers and I get to watch their children grow up - it's nice."

Thursday night: Johnson hands me a fistful of price tags and a marker pen. "You are empowered!" he says with that grin, and I get a pricing sheet and head off to price trees. This also gives me the power to sell trees and load them on people's cars - "where the money is." Well, tonight I get a big, $5 tip from a man and his wife buying a six-foot Douglas Fir, and I get the fever. I make seven bucks in tips tonight.

When things get slow, the workers crowd around the balers. When they see me coming with a customer, they jump in to help, hoping I will share the tip, I guess. One guy - Tip Crasher, I call him - actually steals my collar! As soon as the tree hits the ground, he ties up the netting, picks up the tree and follows the couple to the parking lot. Later, he gives me a buck. "They tipped us," he says. "Us?" I think.

So, I just need to keep away from the Tip Crasher and I'll do fine. Friday night should be big, with most of the employees off to their high school football game. I decide that my "journalistic endeavor" should include research on tipping, and the moral lows to which it can drag somebody like me.

It is not customary to tip at a Christmas tree lot, at least not like in a restaurant, where it's expected, and there is no way to prejudge whether someone will tip you or not. (Johnson won't let his employees mention tips.) I loaded a table-top Douglas and a handful of garland for a $5 tip (OK, so I loaded them into a brand new Mercedes van.) I also spent probably a half-hour schlepping half the forest for a couple, then I hauled their ten-foot tall Noble across the parking lot and lashed it to the roof of their van for a zero dollar tip. In fact, I got a lot more of those tips than any other, but I cleared $15 in four and a half hours, in addition to my wage ($7/hr.) - I am thrilled.

Working with customers is actually fun, because you never know if they will tip or not - it's like having a lottery ticket in your hand; sometimes you win, sometimes you break even, but here, you never lose. It is fun also, because you get to joke with the customer and share Christmas stories. But let me tell you, some people take this stuff seriously, and they spend so much time looking for the perfect tree, you wonder if they know these things are not artificial. It must be a Christmas tradition with some families to see how many trees they can fondle in one night and to see how many times they can get the sorry Tree Lot Guy to haul huge, freaking trees clear through this forest until his faithful legs finally give out, and in a dizzy, yet terribly valiant display of servitude, he drops to the hay, begging their holiday mercy.

Selling Christmas trees can be not fun, because you get to lift trees weighing fifty or sixty pounds sometimes, and because you don't get a chance to really know the people - only for the twenty minutes it takes to show them a few trees and load one onto their car. So much for the Hollywood romance of working a Christmas tree lot.

I have spent a good twenty minutes with a man and his young son and daughter. He didn't like any of the two dozen trees we had set up out front, so we are now out back by the truck, digging through a pile of still-wrapped trees. The table-top trees they are looking at are about as tall as his children are, who, by the way, are bored to tears, and I, by the way, am nearly out of my mind with impatience, but I keep asking him, "would you like to look at another one?"

I meet Alex. He asks for an eight foot tall Noble Fir, and he gasps when he sees the price. "First Christmas in the new house?" I say. "Ahuh."

A father comes with his daughter - she looks to be in her early twenties. He buys two trees, both the same height, with wood stands. I suppose this is her first Christmas out of the house and he is buying a tree for her - not a tiny one, but one the same size as the family's tree (about 5 feet tall). I can tell it's more than he'd like to spend, but he gives Eric the cash. Through the week, I see several stories like this, sometimes with a small child in tow.

I tell very few people what I am really doing - only if they ask. It is actually refreshing, not having to repeat my "True America" story twenty times a day. I want to photograph one family in particular - they have named their new tree "snowball" and are a lot of fun - but I don't know how to ask their permission. Overall, I had a very good week. I made about forty bucks in tips and worked twenty-eight hours. At $7 an hour that's just under $200, but Eric gives me ten twenties and a big, goofy grin.

Growing up in Maine, we always had a huge Christmas tree, decorated to the hilt. My parents had this crazy tradition of hiding the tree until Christmas Eve, letting us string some of the lights, then putting us to bed, telling us that Santa would decorate the tree. Well, the anticipation of getting gifts, combined with seeing that huge spectacle of a Christmas tree in the morning had us kids practically wetting our Dr. Dentons with excitement.

Running pell-mell down the stairs on Christmas morning was a living fantasy as we'd tumble to the bottom, round the corner and take in the spector of lights, tinsel and presents. It was the crowning point of the entire year, and I know my Mom and Dad got a kick out of watching us tear presents open in front of the tree, the most beautiful, most awesome spectacle in that house all year.

Eric Johnson will sell no more trees after December 20th. "After that, the bottom falls out of the market," he says. "I'm looking forward to going home." He knows how to time his shipments just right so that he will run out of trees on the Sunday before Christmas. Then he'll pack up the lot and head back to Lake Elsinor and pretty much take the next few days off with his family, playing with his children and sitting by the tree.

The crew at Johnson Brothers Christmas Trees
wish you happy holidays.

Like a good Christmas story?
Read Mark Gilchrist's first (and only)
foray into fiction;


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