At one San Antonio Christmas tree farm, in the parking lot of a roller skating rink, there’s no scarcity of holiday spirit — even amid a tightening of the tree supply and higher prices this year.
A line of customers had already formed on a recent windy and cold Saturday morning when Pat Murphy emerged from his sleeping trailer at Murphy’s Christmas Tree Lot and Pumpkin Patch, 2351 Goliad Road.
Inside a large white circus tent, families strolled amid the forest of trees at Murphy’s, some standing and others wrapped and stacked 10 deep, hunting for the perfect one.
An estimated 75% of households in the U.S. will decorate a Christmas tree this year, according to the American Christmas Tree Association. (Yes, Virginia, there is a trade group for the holiday staple.) The association advises that the best tree is one that fits a family’s traditions, preferences and budget.
Chris Olivarez brought along his young nephew, Francisco Guerra, and a family friend to find a tree at Murphy’s. After several years of coping with an artificial one, a nostalgic Olivarez wanted a live tree which had been his father’s preference growing up.
Olivarez estimated he would spend $80 on a tree, or about twice as much as he paid several years ago. But price wasn’t a factor.
“As long as I have the real tree the way I used to have it, then I’m content,” Olivarez said.
He chose an 8-foot Douglas fir with a stamp of approval from 7-year-old Francisco, who played among the trees and climbed into the saddle of a stuffed pony next to the lifesize Santa Claus figure.
After Jimmy Derry, who has worked at Murphy’s for about eight years, hauled Olivarez’s selection by the trunk to the service desk and wrapped it for transport, Olivarez paid $130 for his Christmas tree.
Of the 94 million households with at least one Christmas tree this year, 84% are artificial and the rest are farm-grown, but those are in limited supply.
The crop of live trees has dwindled, some by extreme weather events where they are grown — places like Michigan, North Carolina and Oregon, according to business publication The Economist.
The Great Recession, when consumers bought fewer Christmas trees, put some growers out of business in 2008 and reduced planting by others. And because the trees can take up to 15 years to mature, there are fewer trees on the market today.
The pandemic also has put some “Bah! Humbug!” in the supply chain. Freight costs have also gone up.
But the Grinch hasn’t stolen Christmas just yet. Anyone who wants a tree should be able to get one, according to the American Christmas Tree Association.
If last year is any indication, however, procrastinators could be left pining. Demand for Tannenbaums exploded in 2020, outstripping many sellers’ supply by the second week of December.
Murphy, 66, has been selling Christmas trees along Goliad Road since the 1970s, he said. But he’s been in the business of supplying holiday cheer much longer.
As a child, Murphy went into the woods near his home in Alaska and cut down trees that he sold on a nearby military base.
“I think the only reason they bought them is because they could have [gone] back there and cut their own [but] they felt sorry for me,” he said.
Every November, Murphy converts the parking lot next to Car-Vel Skateland from a popular pumpkin patch into a tree market, selling a variety of evergreens, from tiny to tall. Some of his taller trees are displayed in San Antonio’s city parks.
This time of year, Murphy’s flip phone rings constantly. “Yeah, we have a lot of trees. I’m selling them like they’re going out of style, too,” he told one caller. “All different prices.”
In fact, trees at his lot can sell for between $30 and several thousand dollars, he said, with the higher end being a 20-footer.
The enterprising Murphy spends nights in the trailer next to the tent, which holds hundreds of trees destined for lights, ornaments and tinsel.
He has helpers, including Derry and Keith Mosel, but the pre-Christmas season is exhausting, Murphy said.
“I’m sleep deprived the whole time. My brain doesn’t function that good,” he said. “It takes me a couple of weeks after Christmas just to recover.”
Through the years, he’s learned a lot about what tree shoppers want. In general, people who live on the South Side of town prefer the Douglas fir, but Northsiders tend to choose the Noble fir, Fraser fir and Nordmann fir. He’s got them all.
Patrons like Brandy Alvarado want them all — as long as they come from Murphy’s.
“I’ve come here every year since my kids were little,” Alvarado said. One year, Murphy moved the lot to another location Alvarado couldn’t find, leaving her with no choice but to buy from a big-box store. “I hated that tree, I hated it. It just didn’t look right.”
Discovering Murphy’s again, she said, “I literally cried.”
This year, she bought two trees at Murphy’s, one of which was supposed to satisfy her daughter’s request for a “Charlie Brown tree.” Alvarado bought the smallest one she could find, but it wasn’t ugly enough; at home, her daughter said, “That’s really pretty.”
When Alvarado returned to the lot recently to bring lunch — a bucket of chicken — for Murphy, Derry and Mosel, and thank them for the trees, she spotted another thick Douglas tucked behind a towering Nordmann. It was love at “firs” sight.
“Take my stuff off and give [my parents] my tree and we’ll take this one,” she told Mosel.
Another loyal customer stopped by the tree lot to remind Murphy about an upcoming tree shopping spree that’s become a tradition for the past eight years.
“We decorate the church with Christmas trees,” said Father Jimmy Drennan, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church. “But we do so by inviting our parishioners to come over here … and then we give some to families in our parish.”
Drennan’s parishioners buy at least 25 trees. Murphy keeps about 300 trees on his lot but couldn’t tell how many he sells in a day.
Murphy thinks the lockdowns of 2020 motivated everyone to get out of the house and buy trees.
While many lots across San Antonio were cleared of Christmas trees a full two weeks before Santa was due to hitch up the reindeer, Murphy said he still had trees, and people came from as far as Corpus Christi and Austin to buy one.
“But I didn’t make it to Christmas Eve. It was a few days before Christmas and I finally sold out,” he said.