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How to pick the perfect Christmas tree

A woman looks down at a little boy sniffing a Christmas tree for sale.
Nicole Weatherall watches son Fox, 6, smell a Christmas tree for sale at Santa & Sons Christmas Trees in Sherman Oaks.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Does Southern California have seasons? Angelenos would argue yes. There’s earthquake season (hint: That one is year-round). If we’re lucky, some years we get a rainy season. And we have a fall season, though just about the only leaves that change color are palm tree fronds that catch on fire.

And now, well into sad-about-early-sunset season, we’re getting ready to celebrate the holiday season. Residents of the Golden State naturally gravitate toward plants and sparkly things, so of course Southern Californians love Christmas trees.

In 2020, The Times spoke to experts about how to buy a real Christmas tree. Here are some of the tips they shared, plus more on how to pick out a tree and keep it merry and bright until the new year.

How much does a real Christmas tree cost?

The average price of a live Christmas tree was $69.50 in 2021, according to a survey conducted by the National Christmas Tree Assn., a trade group that represents tree farmers and related businesses. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $200, depending on where you buy your tree and what type and size of tree you want.

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If you don’t have a tree stand already, you’ll want to buy one of those as well, either at the lot with your tree or ahead of time. Those will set you back another $20 to $100, depending on size and functionality. It’s also traditional to tip the worker who helps you tie your tree to the top of your car.

You can buy your tree from a big-box retailer, which will probably be on the cheaper side. But that’s because those trees tend to be lower quality, said Brandon Helfer in a 2020 interview with The Times. He’s the owner of Mr. Jingle’s Christmas Trees, which sells live trees at several locations around Southern California. Christmas tree lots like Mr. Jingle’s usually have nicer trees at a higher price point.

Some Christmas tree lots are cash-only — if you don’t normally carry cash, call to ask before you head over.

Wherever you’re rooted — from Ventura to San Juan Capistrano — there’s a fir awaiting a forever home.

What Christmas tree size do I need?

In terms of tree height, you want your ceiling height minus at least a foot so there’s space for the tree topper. Don’t forget to measure the width of the space where the tree will stand to make sure your chosen evergreen will fit.

How do I pick a real Christmas tree?

Ask a staff member on the lot which types of trees are available. Most California lots will have Douglas and noble firs, which grow on the West Coast. Douglas firs are light green with fine needles and are typically less expensive and more fragrant. They’re also known for not lasting as long and shedding copious amounts of needles. Noble firs have thicker blue-green, upward-growing needles and are more expensive; they will maintain their good cheer longer and necessitate less sweeping, but are not as aggressively fragrant.

Before you buy, ask when the tree was cut down. You either want a tree that was cut recently or one that has been stored in the cold for preservation.

Once you’ve selected your variety and know the general size you’re looking for, it comes down to personal preference.

Some small considerations: If the tree is going to sit in a corner, only the half you’ll be able to see needs to look good. The more branches you have, the more ornaments and strings of lights you’ll need to put on it.

Remember that perfection doesn’t exist in nature: If you want a perfect-looking tree, buy a fake one. Part of the charm of a real tree is the realness: the wonky needle pattern, the errant bald spot, the jaunty angle of the topmost branch. Like cats and dogs, all Christmas trees are good in their own way, and each one deserves a loving — dare we say “fir-ever” — home.

Once you’ve selected your tree, ask about a tree shaker. It’s a device that gives your tree a good hard shake, so all the loose needles hit the ground on the lot instead of in your living room. Not every place will have one. The lot may offer to make a fresh cut of the trunk of your tree. If not, you’ll want a saw handy at home. In either case, leave at least 6 inches of trunk between the cut and where the branches start. Some places offer flame retardant or faux-snow flocking.

Wherever you get your tree, it will have twine and someone willing to help you hoist your bounty onto your car’s roof and tie it down. Having an old towel or blanket to put down first will protect your car, though it’s not necessary.

Find the best gifts for gardeners, hikers, surfers, weed enthusiasts, travelers, hosts, food lovers, book fans, white elephant parties and more in this gift guide.

How do I set up my Christmas tree at home?

Once you get the tree and the stand inside, it’s time to set it up. Some tree stands have a spike in the middle on which to impale the tree; others use adjustable bolts or fasteners to hold it upright.

Mac Harman, who sold live trees for nine years before founding artificial Christmas tree and decoration site Balsam Hill, said in a 2020 interview that the optimal setting-up process involves three people: one to hold up the tree, one to crawl under it to adjust the stand, and a third standing across the room to assess straightness. But you can make it work with only one or two.

Tis the season for Christmas light displays. Here’s where to find seasonal cheer in Southern California, from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles to Riverside.

How do I keep my Christmas tree fresh?

The key to a fresh, happy Christmas tree is keeping it hydrated. The water level in your tree stand should always be 2 to 3 inches higher than the base of the trunk. Care for your tree by checking the basin every day or every other day and adding water as needed. Trees suck up water during the day and let some of it back down at night, so don’t fill the basin all the way or you’re risking a messy overflow. Like other houseplants, a tree will appreciate being misted, though be careful about mixing water with strings of electric lights.

Your tree will stay fresher if it’s away from sources of light, drafty air and fire-hazard-creating heat sources.

Los Angeles is full of opportunities to volunteer during the holiday season. Here’s how to give back at soup kitchens, animal shelters and outdoor cleanups.


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