Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyDecember 7, 2023

The rising price of real Christmas trees

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Having a nicely scented, well-dressed guest in the corner of your living room is always a festive treat. But has it always been this pricey?

Despite often being put in a corner, she’s Christmas’s main character. Green, fragrant, and usually the best-dressed member of your household throughout the festive period, Christmas trees quietly take all the glory. If you live somewhere with wilding pines nearby, you may be doing your bit for conservation and getting a free tree this year. But for the rest of us, buying a tree is going to cost.

At Misa Christmas Tree Farm on Auckland’s Balmoral Road, a small tree which reaches to about your mid thigh will set you back about $55. One about my (average) height will be $65, and one the height of a tall person is $85. If you really want it to look impressive though, you’d want the 2-2.3m tree, for $105. The prices rise up to $1,500 for a “comet” which is probably taller than my house at between 5 and 6 metres. These are cut, aka dead, trees. If you want to buy one in a pot it’s at least $160 – and much more unwieldy to transport.

At roadside stalls the trees are sometimes a bit cheaper, with prices starting at $25, or even $15. But the smaller “trees” (usually just branches) sell out quickly, leaving non-early birds with only pricier options.

Even cats like this temporary festive guest. (Photo: Andréas Bruin / Unsplash)

Outside of Auckland, Christmas trees, like almost everything else, seem to be a little cheaper. Xmas Trees Direct in Christchurch were selling trees between $50 and $80, but they’re all sold out. At Santa’s Forest in Upper Hutt, all trees are $50 regardless of whether they are 3ft (under a metre) or 10ft (3m) tall. In Rotorua, you can buy trees up to 3m tall for $40 from the Rotorua East Bowling Club, which has been growing them since the early 90s. They’re less than Auckland prices but still more than I’d want to pay for something I’m going to have to dispose of in January.

Still, for many people, it’s not really Christmas unless your house smells like a pine forest and there are green needles everywhere. Traditions are important, but has having a tree always been pricey? It is, after all, just a tree, right?

In 1962, according to Christchurch newspaper the Press, Christmas trees sold for between five shillings and one pound. That’s not quite as cheap as it sounds: according to the Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator, that would price the most expensive, and presumably biggest, tree at $52.84 today – about the price of a tiny tree at Misa. The five shilling trees would be about $12.

Ten years later, in 1972, New Zealand had dollars and cents, and the Gardenway Nurseries had the “Best offer in town” – Christmas trees for 50c. The inflation calculator equates this to $8 today. In 1975 trees were $1-$2, or the equivalent of $12-$24. 

Newspaper advertising from 1972 and 1989. (Source: Papers Past)

In 1980, sales were down. It was thought to be because more people were buying artificial trees, or none at all. People in the 80s were not particularly concerned with trees, opting for neon, neoprene and foam shoulder pads instead. The going price for a natural tree was about $2 ($12). One Christchurch service station told the Press they had sold only about half the number of trees as the year before. Perhaps this is why the year after, trees were selling for less than half the price at 80c.

In 1984 prices were back up, starting from $3 ($11.44), or if you were lucky you might get one for $1.50. (For reference, a block of tasty cheese at that point was $2.49 a kilo.) In 1989, the Royals Softball Club were selling Christmas trees for $6 in Christchurch – $13.38 in today’s money.

In 1988, some were selling for “only $5”, which today is the price of a coffee, but back then was about $12. Compared to prices today, I couldn’t agree more with that “only”.

In 2002, a New Zealand Herald investigation into Christmas tree prices found that in Auckland prices varied widely but were most often between $20 and $30. Some roadside sellers in Tauranga had $5 trees, but a farm was selling pines for $15 to $30. In Hamilton prices ranged between $12 and $38.

Newspaper advertising from 1988. Sourced from Papers Past.

So why are they so expensive today? Michael Fuyala, who is part of the Misa family who have been growing and selling trees since the 1940s, says the first cost to consider is the land that the trees take up. Trees can take three to eight years to grow, so that’s quite a while that they’re taking up some possibly expensive real estate. Then there’s the fact that trees don’t naturally grow into that festive shape. They are trimmed every six months, which involves lugging ladders through the plantation. Then there’s handling them, chopping them down, putting them in water, and getting them to the places they need to get to. 

Although the team at Misa generally use their trucks for just a couple of months a year, the vehicles have to be maintained, insured and looked after year-round. Finally there’s the retailing costs, people, signage, advertising. From Fuyala’s perspective the price of the trees has “always seemed like quite a low cost”.

He’s seen the $15 signs on the side of the road, but noticed that those sellers don’t tend to survive very long, and the trees aren’t really what you picture when you think of a Christmas tree. For him, the most important tree at Misa is the Santa Special – decently sized trees for $45. “If you’ve got a family and you haven’t got much money, and the kids want a tree, it’s super important there’s a tree for that person.”

There is also always the option my parents went for – a fake tree which you buy once then store in the attic and reassemble annually for the next 30 years. That particular one got lost somewhere along the way, but last year my mum found a slightly bushier one at the op shop for $10. It is currently proudly on display at her house. New fake trees at The Warehouse range from $18.75 for what looks like quite a spindly little thing, to $499 for a bushy beast sprinkled in (fake) snow. It might be better to abandon the attempt at realism and lean into artificiality with an opalescent white tree with inbuilt lights. I can personally attest to the fact that none of these smell nice, but once you put on all the decorations they at least look the part.

Like the land they’re grown on and the labour that shapes them, natural Christmas trees will continue to rise in price. The more practical among us may find it too much to pay for something just a month away from being mulch, but the type of person who starts humming carols in November will continue to consider it priceless.

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