A traditionalist, I made sure that Thanksgiving was a fond memory last year and we were well into December when I agreed to shop for a Christmas tree. Three dismal parking lots later, I discovered the offerings were limited to a 4-foot tree with a crooked trunk, an anemic 5-footer with a large gap and an 8-footer with some broken limbs.
All the good trees were snatched up by Thanksgiving weekend. This year, my wife and I went tree-shopping the weekend before Thanksgiving, only to discover the trees hadn't arrived yet.
Those are tales that bring folks to Joe Kane's Treetime Christmas Creations, the Lake Barrington warehouse that boasts hundreds of artificial trees.
"It's really common for people to come in with their families and say, 'We don't use artificial trees,' and then they buy one," says Kane, 53, who doesn't bad-mouth real-tree traditionalists. "We understand how to make them comfortable."
Even when the trees are fake, the race to get the best ones is real.
"We open the day after Labor Day, and we get a rush that first week or two," says Kane, of Lake Zurich, who runs the operation with his wife, Laurie. "By Dec. 10, we're very quiet."
Then they get busy again for a couple of weeks after Christmas and into January. Kane's mom and dad, Joe and Frances Kane, helped with Monday's busy showroom. A few trees are sold out.
"They're gone already," Kane says of a lush, fully lighted 9-foot Burberry Fir that some customers missed out on this year. "Those are the people who will be here the day after Labor Day."
He notes his staff can lead customers to a slightly different tree, maybe one smaller or taller, or one that doesn't come with lights. The artificial crowd is a bit different from the cut-your-own-tree romantics or even the typical fresh-tree buyers.
"We have customers who put a tree in every room of their house," Kane says, explaining how some people create themes for every tree. Smaller, simpler trees sell for under 100 bucks. Most people spend several hundred, and some shell out up to a couple thousand for a larger, better-crafted tree. A corporate 40-foot tree with lights sells for $25,000. He notes that the carbon-footprint and cost of an artificial tree can be overcome in a few years.
Nearly 100 million U.S. homes put up a Christmas tree, according to a 2016 survey conducted by Nielsen for the American Christmas Tree Association. Kane and his designers come up with their creations in February and March. "I'm actually going to China in a few weeks to start the design process," he says. There can be fashion trends such as flocking that looks like snow, or changes in lighting.
"The world has come back to colored lights," says Kane, who also offers plenty of all-white lights. As a kid, his father worked as a general manager for a hotel chain, so he spent Christmas in a lot of different locations with just about every kind of tree imaginable.
When it comes to Christmas trees, the customer is always right.
"If you want some weird Christmas thing, it's available here," Kane says. While he gushes about the realistic look of some of his trees, he notes that the best Christmas trees are the ones that make you happy.
"This tree," he says, pointing to a cheaper, old-style tree obviously made of plastic. "Even though it doesn't look real, this is what they remember a Christmas tree looks like."
My wife and I need to renew our Christmas tree pursuit this week. We've had trees that were too short, too tall, too crooked, lost too many needles and fell over. Ours doesn't have to be a perfect tree, but nobody would have fond Christmas memories of the year we just put the lights and ornaments on the floor in a corner.