It was our parents’ tradition, and we’ve continued it with our three kids: cutting our own Christmas tree. So, la-di-da, last year we arrived in mid-December at the Peltzer family lot in Silverado Canyon, congratulating ourselves for getting out so early. More than a week before Christmas! We felt like real winners.
But as the amount of undeveloped land in the county shrinks, it’s getting more difficult to find a tree to cut. Turns out, residents now are hustling out in November to find their trees, and a whole ritual has grown up around it. In the week before Thanksgiving, hundreds line up in the pre-dawn darkness to reserve one they will cut later—thereby marking their trees.
We hadn’t heard about this—excuse me—caninelike ritual. Over the decades we’ve had to drive to several locations to find a tree to cut, and we’ve pretty much taken for granted that one will always be there. But last year, as we sailed into that forest of perfectly shaped, 8-foot Montereys, we quickly saw that every one already was sporting a red “sold” tag.
The hunt was on.
The pines were fragrant in the hot sun; the little grove smelled like a forest. The Silverado lot is Peltzer’s newest location, one he aquired about 10 years ago. The Peltzer family constantly has had to scout for new land in Orange County as development has pushed out their farms. We’ve chased after them through many of their dozen moves.
Their most notable relocation was in the 1950s, when Walt Disney picked their orange grove for Disneyland. They held out for more than he was offering, and finally traded their parcel for another chunk of Anaheim farmland. (Their old grove is now somewhere between the Pirates of the Caribbean and Tom Sawyer Island.)
This year, the Peltzers celebrate a century of farming in Orange County. They got into the Christmas tree business in 1963, and it was lucrative enough that competition swooped in. Within a few years, there were 35 Christmas tree farms in Orange County. Today there are three, and two of them are owned by the Peltzers.
At the Silverado farm, my three kids fanned out, each certain to find the magic—and unsold—pine.
“Sold,” each child cried out from his respective row. “Sold, sold, sold, sold.” It became a rhythm. I saw two families haggling over a Charlie Brown special, the white “available” tag dangling from it like its only fruit, and I knew we were in trouble.
We walked down to the shack where people pay for the trees, and the cutter let us buy the lone pine that already had been cut. It was leaning against the shack and had a large gap in one side, but we were glad to have any fresh tree at all.
“Next year,” the cutter said, “come back in November.”
My kids laughed. November?
“It’s so Orange County,” groaned my oldest. “Take a number. For a tree.”
The Christmas Tree Run—my name, not theirs—used to be the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but like so much that is holiday-related, it comes way too early. Nick Peltzer, a fourth-generation Peltzer farmer, tells us the tree warriors start showing up at 5:30 a.m. the Saturday before Turkey Day. When there was a farm in Irvine, the 55-year-old says, Irvine residents set a record for showing up early: 3:30 a.m.
Chuck Pelzer, the 78-year-old patriarch of the clan, apparently invented the idea for making a reservation to cut a tree. I recently went back to the Silverado farm to meet him, and we watched as his workers trimmed this year’s branches with their machetes, shaping the new growth so that each tree became a perfect cone. He says the job requires an artistic hand; not just anyone can do it.
Orange County buyers are forever in search of the perfect shape—aren’t we all?—and the senior Peltzer tells me those who race in to get their trees the week before Thanksgiving always claim the tightly cropped ones. But, he says, the ones they leave behind are a little less perfect, and that means there will be more room between the branches for decorations. (I know. He sounds like one heck of a salesman, but he has a point. We once cut a tree that was so perfect the decorations wouldn’t hang flat, and we ended up letting it go naked except for the star on top.)
I tell him we keep coming back because it has become our tradition. And in our family the tradition thrives because it gives us something we crave every day and can’t readily get: a walk in the woods.
He laughs. “We sell an experience.”
Many of his customers come because they like the trees, but more come for the tradition, he says. Only 20 percent even cut their own. Most rely on Peltzer’s workers to fell their trees, preferring to take pictures.
But, he says, there’s not much chance the next generation of Orange County will get to do this: “We’ve run out of ground.”
It makes me sad to think we’re at the end of the line for this tradition, that my kids probably won’t be able to take their children out to cut down their Christmas trees in Orange County. It’s also true that drought could wipe out the farms sooner than any developer. We hope for new water technology and builders who recognize there’s profit in leaving behind some green space, even if it comes in the form of a family Christmas tree farm.
Until then, we’ll also have to make peace with Christmas trees in November. Because making a reservation for one is better than having no tree to reserve at all.
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.