It's December 27, but Christmas trees at Potomac Garden Center are still lined up in crisp, even rows. A sign advertises: "All Christmas Trees 50% Off." The lot is quiet at the moment, but this morning the nursery sold two Christmas trees, and expects to continue selling through New Year's day and beyond.
Christmas may have come and gone for most of America, but in the D.C. suburbs, the holiday extends for two more weeks: first to New Year's Eve, when immigrants from the former Soviet Union celebrate a secularized version of Christmas, and then to January 7, when Christmas is celebrated by some Orthodox religions. For local nurseries, that means an extended Christmas tree season, and a chance to salvage unsold trees that would have otherwise gone to waste.
David Angell, owner of the Potomac Garden Center, said he started noticing approximately 15 years ago that patrons would show up after Christmas, asking for Christmas trees. Through conversations with customers, as well as with a Russian employee, he began to realize that "some folks celebrate their Christmas on January 1st."
These days, approximately 2% of Angell's Christmas tree sales occur after Christmas.
Why would that be? The answer lies in a bit of folk trivia, dating back to the U.S.S.R. During Communist times, religion was outlawed and Christmas was banned. But even Communist authorities couldn't bear the thought of foregoing a fragrant Christmas tree, and Santa Claus delivering presents, so they reinstated the cultural trappings of Christmas, but a week later, under the secular guise of New Year.
And so, the modern "Noviy God" (Russian for 'New Year') was born, complete with a decorated "New Year's Tree" and a suspiciously plump "Grandfather Frost" who climbs down chimneys to deliver presents to kids. Jews and other minority religions happily jumped on the bandwagon, and soon enough "Noviy God" was a true national holiday. In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union crumbled and refugees streamed to the D.C. area, bringing their Christmas-New Year's mash-up with them.
At first, immigrants profited handsomely from the lag between Christmas and Noviy God: come December 26, nurseries would promptly discard unsold Christmas trees, and there they would sit, ripe for the taking ahead of the December 31 celebration. But with the passing years, local nurseries have wisened up to the practice, and have taken advantage of the second window of sales it affords them.
"We continue selling because we know there will be people looking for Christmas trees after Christmas," said Pablo Rodriguez, owner of Pablo's Garden nursery in Rockville. "What we have left, we sell to them."
In addition to post-Soviet immigrants, Rodriguez says he sells after Christmas to two other groups: followers of Orthodox religions that celebrate on January 7th, and also a community from an African nation (he did not recall which) that he said celebrates Christmas on January 15th.
In fact, several religions, including Russian Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox, follow the Julian calendar, which runs approximately two weeks behind the Gregorian calendar. For these religions, Christmas comes on January 7.
The front lot of the St. Luke Serbian Orthodox Church in Potomac was full of Christmas trees on the 27th. The church, which serves as the main religious hub for the tri-state area's sizable Serbian community, will continue to sell trees for almost two more weeks, until January 6.
Staggered Christmas trees sales are unsurprising given the area's ethnic and cultural diversity, said Kim Weigner, an employee at Potomac Garden Center. Weigner said that as a business, the nursery has to be familiar with certain holidays and trends, and know the products that local ethnic groups request.
Not all local nurseries have caught on to the late Christmas tree phenomenon. At American Plant in Bethesda, employees exchanged blank looks when asked whether any patrons request Christmas trees after the 25th. Jeff Bright, the nursery manager, said he has heard that some groups celebrate late, but said he only sold "one or two" post-Christmas trees in 2014, and none thus far in 2015.
Christmas tree sales are big business -- according to the National Christmas Tree Association, Americans spent over $1 billion to purchase 26 million live Christmas trees in 2014 -- so even fringe sales can be important. Nurseries may not stock extra trees especially to accommodate the post-Christmas market, but many are happy for the extra profits afforded by selling off any leftover stock.
By contrast, Pablo's Garden has become a bit annoyed at patrons who come by immediately after Christmas, hoping for a steep discount. Rodriguez scoffed at some "Russians' offers to buy trees for $20" (he normally sells trees for between $70 and $80, and discounts to $50 after Christmas).
"If you give trees away, then people will feel entitled," he said. "I buy these trees. If you're going to stay in business, you have to have respect for your business."
But for others, like Potomac Garden Center, the marginal sales are welcome, especially considering the fact that unsold Christmas trees are generally discarded or turned into wood chips.
"Nurseries love to see people come in [after Christmas]", Weigner said. "Because the trees need to go."