Last week, a family without money to buy a Christmas tree came to Ron Shearer, owner of the Timberline Redwood Co., asking for a dead one.
"They just wanted a dead tree, they were not particular," Shearer recalled. "It takes a lot of guts to come and ask for a tree. We walked out and let them pick . . . any green tree on the lot.
"They looked so happy and the look on the children's faces broke my heart," Shearer said. "So I said let's give them away."
In these final days before Christmas, Shearer decided to put up a sign facing the southbound Interstate 5 reading: "Out of work? Need a tree? Please stop and see me." Since Monday morning, he has given away two dozen trees and collected almost $1,000 for charity from those people who can afford to pay for a tree.
"I don't know why I do it, maybe it just makes me feel good," he said.
For the past eight or nine holiday seasons, Shearer's lumberyard on Camino Capistrano just south of Avery Parkway has been strewn with straw and rows of pointed evergreen trees.
"The recession has slowed things down a bit," he said. "I get a lot of the same customers every year. The people who were buying the big trees last year are buying littler trees this year."
More this year than in the past, people have come looking for the cheapest, scrawniest tree--or even dead ones, he said.
"If people have not bought a Christmas tree by the Sunday before, they ain't going to buy one," he said. So when he got the opportunity to purchase another tree seller's overstock for $5 apiece, the idea to give them away was born.
One customer, unable to pay the $24 for a tree, instead contributed a Lotto ticket and $4.
Shearer has about 100 trees left on his lot, but if the demand is strong enough, he can get about 200 more.
"Otherwise we would just chip them up into mulch," he said. "But people need these trees."
Money from the sale of 60 trees has been given to two local charities, the Orange County Rescue Mission in Santa Ana and Operation Santa Claus, a charitable organization based in Orange.