TORONTO — Scott Lunau was steering apple pickers onto his farm in mid-November when a customer asked if it was too early to cut down a Christmas tree. He scrambled out to the barn to find the wrapping machine and netting needed to tie up a tree like a package, ready for a roof rack.
“I thought I had a few crazy people who wanted to get trees early,” said Lunau, owner of Albion Orchards, a 50-acre farm 25 minutes northwest of Toronto. With six weeks to go before Christmas, he wondered if they were going on a trip and planned to celebrate early.
Instead, they were harbingers of the storm of early Christmas tree shoppers that would descend on his farm, and many others across the country, just as COVID-19 rates began to rise at alarming rates.
Christmas has come early to Canada, it seems, with parts of the country hunkered down since November. Its biggest city, Toronto, and two of its large suburbs went into lockdown two weeks ago. Since there is little Christmas shopping, few Christmas parties and fewer of the Christmas pageants that are a hallmark of the country’s annual celebration, all that festive energy is being squeezed into private happy-making — centered around the traditional Christmas tree.
Weeks before the first Saturday of December, when Canadians usually start looking for their trees, many cut-your-own Christmas tree farms were already picked clean, sold-out signs put up on Christmas tree lots and nurseries declared they were out of inventory. If toilet paper shortages and bare shelves in the baking aisle of grocery stores were the symbol of the coronavirus’s first crash through Canada, then Christmas trees are quickly becoming the symbol of the virus’s second wave.
“We’ve been trying for four days to find more,” said Steve Watson, who runs a large Christmas tree lot in Toronto’s Beaches neighborhood that was picked dry a week after it opened in November. “Someone offered me three times the price to give them a tree last night. It’s definitely COVID-panic.”
Christmas is Canada’s biggest holiday of the year. Traditionally, it is marked by large gatherings — Christmas markets, Christmas concerts, tree lightings and Santa Claus parades that weave through crowded streets packed with viewers who arrive hours early to mark their spot.
This year, as coronavirus rates break records across the country, most of those have been canceled.
François Legault, the premier of Quebec, had been among the few political leaders to condone small gatherings over the holidays. Last Thursday, he reversed his stand, saying the province’s soaring rates meant that family gatherings of any size were “not a good idea.”
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in. “We knew it wouldn’t be a normal Christmas,” he said. “Now we are going to have to try to connect differently with our loved ones.” He added, “It’s going to be a difficult time.”
Many Canadians who fly across the country to see family or escape south to the tropics for a few weeks of precious sun, have canceled those trips. About 70% of Canada’s 110,000 snowbirds, who typically head to Florida, California and Arizona for winter, decided to stay put, according to the Canadian Snowbird Association’s spokesman, Evan Rachkovsky.
Taken together, that makes for many more Christmas tree buyers — pushing sales across the country up by 25%, said Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Canadian Christmas Trees Association, a growers’ group.
“People want hope,” she said. “Christmas trees give them hope.”
That same motivation seems prevalent in Britain, several Western European countries and parts of the United States, where demand for trees — at tree farms, tree stands and online — is breaking records.
In Canada, the increase is not entirely the result of locked-down crazed shopping; it is part of a trend. Over the last five years, Canadian Christmas tree farm sales have more than doubled, to $108 million, or $138 million Canadian dollars, in 2019. That coincided with a lower supply, particularly in the United States, where the 2008 recession put many tree farms out of business and caused others to plant fewer trees.
Since the perfect Christmas tree takes about 10 years to grow, the market is still feeling the results now, said Doug Drysdale, a Christmas tree farmer. About half of Canadian tree sales go across the border into the United States, according to Statistics Canada.
“The U.S. is desperately short of trees,” said Drysdale, whose Drysdale Tree Farms is among the largest cut-your-own Christmas tree operations in the country. Two American wholesalers called him in August, looking for 50,000 trees each — enough to wipe out his entire inventory for years, he said.
On the first Saturday in December, which is officially Christmas Tree Day in Ontario, two parking lots in front of Drysdale’s farm an hour north of Toronto were jammed with cars. This year, because of coronavirus concerns, Drysdale was not offering his usual Christmas village fare — no carolers, no Santa for children to climb on, no horse-drawn carriage rides through the woods or bonfires over which to toast marshmallows. But it did not seem to matter.
“We’re all stuck inside,” said John Grogan, a 67-year-old retired electrician, standing in a long line of families waiting to board a wagon and be towed out into the Christmas tree fields. “Everybody needs something to cheer them up. This is the way to do it.” Grogan’s grandchildren played around him, wearing masks. Since the coronavirus rates began to soar in the area, they had stopped coming into his home to be sure not to infect him or his wife, he said.
“This is our opportunity to be together again,” he said.
For some growers like Drysdale, the Christmas tree phase has come as a welcome boost to lagging profits because they have raised tree prices. For others, it has simply meant barren fields.
“When we are done, we are done,” said Matthew Whitney, who runs a small Christmas tree farm three hours west of Toronto. “We can only plant so many trees a year. We have to be strict, so you are not selling trees that are for next year.” The Christmas spirit kept him from raising prices — it was a tough year on everyone, he said, “when people weren’t as flush as they usually are.”
After only two weekends open, Whitney sold all 600 trees, around half to new customers who had never bought a real tree before. That means he and wife will have a novel Christmas season, without the bustle of customers arriving to their farm.
“That’s a refreshing change,” he said. “We can sit back and enjoy it.”