Tree Story

According to Jane Mitchell, I've been "sucked into the Christmas-tree vortex." And Jane ought to know. She and her family have been selling Christmas trees for more than half a century here in Phoenix. Tim Mitchell Christmas Trees has been a holiday staple in the Valley since 1950, and remains the best place, most locals agree, to score a really gorgeous noble fir or piñon pine.

Like nearly everyone who crosses Jane's path, I've been recruited to work at one of the lots named after Jane's father, a former fourth-grade teacher who left the profession to sell Christmas trees in the desert. Mostly, I've been wandering up and down the neatly tended aisles at the Scottsdale Mitchell lot, chatting up Jane's co-workers and eavesdropping on customers' tree talk. (Best overheard comment: "Let's get a boy tree this year. Last year's tree was such a girl.")

My day began innocently enough. I'd lured Jane away from her trees with the promise of breakfast (okay, maybe we should call this one "Brunch Meet") and a lot of talk about spruce pines. I chose Katz's Deli and Restaurant for our rendezvous, because I figured Jane would want to eat someplace where she could get away from Christmas for a little while. (I thought about asking Jane if we could eat at one of her tree lots since, as Euell Gibbons reminded us about pine trees in the '70s, "Many parts are edible." But Jane wasn't sure which parts, so we met instead for kosher food.)

There's nothing even remotely Christmasy about Katz's -- no piped-in holiday tunes, no plastic wreaths, not a poinsettia in sight. The deli case is stacked with tongue and huge kosher dills and a giant dead fish. Jane, who's nursing a cold that's taken away her appetite, orders a plain bagel with cream cheese; I have the matzo and eggs, scrambled. (I always order them with a side of syrup, and eat the first half with salt and the second half like a pancake. Try it.)

Jane cringes when I mention the artificial Christmas trees I grew up with, but otherwise -- despite her sniffles -- she's relentlessly cheerful as she discusses the family business. She's hawked holiday trees for as long as she can remember, working alongside her parents -- transplanted Midwesterners who grew up in Phoenix -- and sisters Sally, Connie and Cathy. The original tree lot was on Van Buren Street, where the Bank One building now sits; for most of Jane's childhood, she worked the lot at Seventh Avenue and Osborn.

"Grown-ups didn't believe me when I told them what my father did for a living," Jane says. "They'd say, 'That's nice. What does he do the rest of the year?'"

Who knew that selling Christmas trees is a year-round, full-time job? Tim Mitchell Christmas Trees maintains several farms in Oregon, and enjoys brisk nationwide sales of its rebar-and-plastic stands and a drill that Tim (who passed away in 1996) invented to boar holes into the heartiest trunk. The company has operated as many as 18 lots at one time; this year, there are six Valley Tim Mitchell sites.

Selling Christmas all year does nothing to dampen Jane's holiday spirit. "Everyone in the Christmas-tree vortex looks forward to December, because we see people -- both workers and customers -- who we've known all our lives but only see on the tree lot." Jane not only recognizes her repeat customers, she can tell you which generation they represent. "We have one family who are on their third generation with us," she tells me. "The father bought trees from us in the '60s, and now his grandkids come down every year to pick out trees for their kids."

Another family that has been a Mitchell loyalist for 25 years only ever buys the ugliest tree it can find, Jane says. "They call them 'homely fellows,' and they say they pick the tree that calls out to them. They give the tree a name every year."

One year, the family in question selected a large specimen it named Clive. "It fell over one evening while they slept," Jane recalls. "I got a call the next morning; they thought I would want to know that Clive had fallen to his death the night before."

Jane is fiercely loyal to her customers, and politely demurs when I ask about the dumb comments she most often hears. "We do have a favorite customer question every year," she admits. "This year it's, 'If I tie it to the top of my new car, will the tree scratch my paint job?'" To which Jane always replies, "Of course it will! It's a tree!"

Memorably stupid questions from Christmases past include "Can I plant my tree after Christmas?" ("You can, but it won't grow," Jane replies) and "Can you make that tree fit into my tree stand?" (always asked by little old ladies buying 12-foot trees and wielding teeny, flimsy dime-store stands).

I figure Jane will be able to explain why putting sugar into the water will keep a tree fresh longer, but she just shrugs. "Ask a nurseryman," she says. "We sell a couple of preservatives because people demand them, but I just use regular old water, myself."

Jane may not know about sugar, but she's still a font of Christmas tree information: Most people buy trees around December 10, and nearly every tree sold today comes from a tree farm, not the forest. It takes six or seven years to grow an eight-foot Douglas fir, and about three years longer for a good noble. Your tree will last longer if you shut any nearby heater vents and draperies; and, no matter how dried-out it gets, no Christmas tree will ever burst into flames. "Trees don't spontaneously combust," she sighs. "A dried-out tree that catches fire will mostly smolder. Unless you douse it with gasoline first."

When I confess that I can't tell a pine from a fir, Jane invites me -- for the fifth time -- to work one of her lots. I give in and, several hours later, I'm impersonating a tree salesman. That is, until one shopper threatens to place a pox on my family if I don't sell her the 20-foot inflatable Santa guarding the lot entrance. Unequipped with the warmth and charm displayed by every other Mitchell employee, I sneak off the lot and head for my car. As I'm leaving, I hear someone say, "It's always so merry here," and the sound of Jane's hoarse laughter, pealing like a Christmas bell.