The setting sun caused the lavish green needles of the Leyland cypress trees to shine, seemingly enhancing their rich pine aroma.
The trees dotted several acres of this rural patch near Conway – Booth’s Christmas Tree Farm – and workers were busy pruning them as the sun continued its descent in the clear blue sky. The temperature was so pleasant this late December afternoon that no jacket was required.
These weren’t the conditions one might expect while looking for that perfect Christmas tree.
But that’s just what Socastee residents Bobbie and Nola Ballard were doing Tuesday afternoon. For only the second time in their 26 years of marriage, the couple was opting for a real Christmas tree.
The reason? Nostalgia. And Christmas tree growers in Horry County and across the state may have that to thank for a bump in sales in recent years.
“We just prefer the smell and the feel of a real tree,” said Nola Ballard.
Haley Booth, who operates the family-owned Booth’s tree farm about two miles past the S.C. 22 overpass in the Conway area, said their sales through the first two holiday weekends after Thanksgiving reached 700, a 10 percent increase from the same time in 2011.
His wife Loretta Booth said families have ventured back to live trees the past few years because of tradition.
“We’re seeing families returning, and it’s mainly families with children,” she said.
Bobbie Ballard said his past experience as a firefighter made him hesitant to invest in a real tree, and it was easier to just go with the reliable artificial one.
Holiday spirit overtook peace of mind this year.
“They’re as safe as you make them,” Bobbie Ballard said.
Whether they’ve embraced personal safety or simply love that fresh smell, Steve Penland said he’s seeing families across South Carolina make the pilgrimage to find, as Clark Griswold called it, that symbol of the Christmas season.
“We like to call it the ‘Generation Y’ factor, said Penland, executive secretary of the South Carolina Christmas Tree Association.
On the whole, sales across the state during the first weekend after Thanksgiving were up 5 to 10 percent compared to 2011, he said.
Last year was no slouch either, as holiday revelers drove tree sales to as much as 10 to 20 percent greater than 2010, Penland said.
“I’ve had to re-order supplies for my tree stands,” said Penland, who also operates a tree farm in York County.
On the national front, 30.8 million live Christmas trees were bought in 2011 at an average price of $34.87, according to statistics from the National Christmas Tree Association. Another 9.5 million artificial trees were bought for an average of $70.55.
It was the biggest year for real tree purchases since 2007. That year, 31.3 live Christmas trees were bought versus 17.4 artificial ones.
The next three years saw steady declines for both before their upswing in 2011.
Loretta Booth acknowledged their sales were negatively impacted the first few years following the economic collapse. But she said the industry has ebbs and flows like that a lot.
“It’s just up and down, up and down,” she said.
Nostalgia and a little additional pocket money aren’t the only factors expert say are driving tree sales in South Carolina. A mild winter also has caused more people to venture outdoors in search of that perfect holiday staple, Penland said.
Whatever the reason, be it memories of holidays past or pleasant temperatures, it seems a safe bet that plenty of homes along the Grand Strand are going to have that fresh pine smell this Christmas.