Every year the Mautz family spends Christmas on the farm.
Surrounded by seven acres of pine trees and a view of the San Gabriel Mountains, they bundle up against the chill and play cassettes of Christmas music. Visitors are welcomed with hot coffee and often leave with a hearty "Merry Christmas" from patriarch Charles Mautz--and with a tree tied with twine to the roof of their car.
But this farm is no country getaway.
It is beneath 20-foot-high electrical power lines belonging to Southern California Edison. Cars zip by on busy Del Mar Boulevard. The Foothill Freeway is just blocks away, and houses crowd against the farm on three sides.
This urban site is one of eight "choose and cut" Christmas tree farms in the San Gabriel Valley. They are family-run businesses, quietly tended all year by weekend farmers who open the farms early in December, spend three weeks chopping down the products of their yearlong labor and close the week before Christmas, just in time for family holiday preparations.
The farms inspire a rush of good cheer and unique holiday traditions for those who run them.
"It's a tradition for my son to pick the Christmas tree," said Rich DeRosa of Grand Avenue Tree Farm in Glendora. "We never know exactly what tree it is until the 17th, when we cut it. It's the last thing we do before we close for the year."
The tradition began seven years ago when the DeRosa family busied itself with opening-day tasks and gave 12-year-old Ryan, the youngest child, the responsibility of choosing the family tree. Every year since then, Ryan places a "Sold" sign on the tree.
This year during his Thanksgiving college break, 19-year-old Ryan marked the tree, even though he was reluctant to do so, his father said.
"It's also a tradition that he gets a lot of static from the rest of us," he said. "Like 'Why did you choose that tree? It's not even straight!' "
At Grandpa's Christmas Tree Farm in Hacienda Heights, tours by preschool and elementary schoolchildren are an annual event.
The elementary schoolchildren are especially noisy as they march from a nearby school, knapsacks on their backs. "You can hear them coming," said Anne Kipers, co-owner of the 9-year-old farm. "They come down the hill and they're chattering and it leads up to a big crescendo and you know you have to run down and open the gates."
The rambunctious preschoolers are treated to pine tree-shaped cookies and apple juice after their tours, Kipers said.
At the Green and Fresh Christmas Tree Farm run by the Mautzes in Pasadena, free peanuts are a holiday tradition. Charles Mautz estimates that customers consumed more than 65 pounds this year, as well as gallons of free coffee and lemonade.
"I kind of enjoy it here," Mautz said on a recent weeknight as the sound of Christmas carols wafted from a speaker, eager children ran from tree to tree and smiling homemakers guided their tree-laden sedans along the farm's gravel path.
As on other tree farms, family members pitch in during the three-week sale period. Mautz's wife, Linda, manages a cash register in a trailer on the grounds and his mother, Catherine, answers the phone. His two teen-age daughters tend the books, Mautz said.
"It's a family-oriented business," said Mautz, 49. "Christmas tree farming is one of the few businesses left that is family-owned."
Like other Christmas tree farm owners, Mautz, a junior high school teacher, bought the farm as a part-time investment. He knew nothing about farming when he took it over 12 years ago when it was a small, weed-infested operation. The farm contains 5,000 Monterey pines, the heat-resistant breed most commonly grown on Southern California tree farms.
To show off his handiwork, he walked past the cutting section full of tree stumps oozing sap and into the growing areas cordoned off by plastic tape. As Mautz traveled the gravel pathway back into these dark, unlighted areas, the city noises were swallowed by the growing trees, and the temperature abruptly dropped 15 degrees.
"Feel that cold?" he said. "It's the trees giving off moisture."
Automatic sprinklers spray the trees every night, a conservation and anti-theft measure, Mautz said.
"If you've ever picked up a wet Christmas tree, you'll never do it again," he said.
When he tends his farm on the weekend--planting and trimming the trees, and pulling weeds--squirrels and jays are his companions, he said. After a day on his farm, his clothes absorb the odor of pine.
"You can smell it on my clothes," he said, "and people ask me if I've been in the woods."