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Living Christmas 24 hours a day

Tree salesman Bill Fiel is an annual sight at Chicago Christmas tree lots. (WBEZ/Rebecca Kruth)
Picking out a Christmas tree together was a yearly tradition in my family.

Every year, we’d drive to a 10-acre Christmas tree farm about a mile from my house in rural Michigan. We’d wait for the owner, a retired forester, to pull up with his tractor and trailer, then we’d climb on and make ourselves comfortable on bales of hay.

He’d drive us deep into the tree farm and drop us off. We’d wander through rows of spruce trees, searching for that perfect evergreen blend of height and symmetry.

My mom would always go for the shorter trees, something that wouldn’t require hours of teetering on a step ladder to decorate. To be fair, she is only 5'1".

My dad had a tendency to choose trees that needed “a little bit of love.” His choices weren’t quite as desperate looking as a Charlie Brown tree, but it wasn’t uncommon for him to pick one with a giant hole on the side or a headdress of scraggly brown needles on top.

I think he felt sorry for them.

As for me, all I was interested in was the height. The bigger, the better, right? Sure, it would be nice to find something symmetrical, but half of it was going to end up against the wall anyway.

After wandering around in the bitter Michigan cold for close to an hour, my dad would usually take my side, and we’d end up with a tree at least a foot taller than originally planned.  

Once we made our choice the owner would saw it down for us and haul it back on the trailer. He’d bale it up while his wife invited us into their barn for hot apple cider. We’d warm our hands on the spicy drink and watch while our tree was tied to the roof of our car.

Tree farms were the only source I knew for finding a Christmas tree. There was one year when some Girl Scouts tried to sell them in a vacant lot. My dad took one look at the dozen or so trees to choose from, turned up his nose and drove us to out to the tree farm again. I was young and couldn’t understand why the Girl Scouts were making any attempt at entering a market the tree farm had clearly cornered.

I never stopped and wondered how people who lived in the city bought real Christmas trees. I just assumed they made do with fake ones. I didn’t think about it again until I came to Chicago this year and saw the tree lots that start popping up around Thanksgiving. There’s one just a block from my apartment. Right away I could tell the tree selection was far superior to what the Girl Scouts were offering in my town, and the salesman Bill Fiel knew a lot more about his trees than they did.

Fiel, who lives in Green Bay in the Christmas-tree off season, takes pride in what he does.

Listen to the audio above to hear Fiel tell what it’s like to live on a Christmas tree lot and sell trees in the city.

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