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NAPLES — Take one step into the big white tent near the Naples Plaza and the smell hits you immediately.
The tent, home to the Heath family Christmas tree stand for more than 40 years, is filled with Christmas trees. Tall fir trees nearly touch the tip of the roof, handmade wreaths are stacked on tables and Christmas music is piped in over a loudspeaker.
For a few weeks each year, this U.S. 41 parking lot turns into Christmas central. And while the Heath stand may be one of the oldest in Naples, in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas similar sites can be found popping up on street corners and shopping centers throughout Collier and Lee counties.
More than 30 million real Christmas trees were purchased in the United States in 2011, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. That sum marks a year-over-year increase from 2010, when an estimated 27 million real trees were sold.
"It's all about the tradition, the memories," said Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the national organization. "Some people crave ... the tradition."
But tradition can come at a cost. The average amount spent on a real Christmas tree in 2011 was $34.87 compared to $70.55 on an artificial tree, but the assumption is that an artificial tree will have a longer life span. The American Christmas Tree Association, a trade association, estimates an artificial tree should last 20 years, while the cost of a live tree is an annual expense.
Still, Dungey said it's hard to compare the costs associated with each purchase.
"You can't tell someone they'll save money," he said. "There's no way you can tell someone here's the cost comparison. You don't know what people want in a tree."
Mark Scott, a manager at the Home Depot on Pine Ridge Road, said artificial trees are a big seller at his store, particularly pre-lit trees in the 6- to 7-foot range.
But while Home Depot is selling many artificial trees, Scott said the big draw is still the tent full of trees in the parking lot. The store sees many of the same customers coming through its door each year, and Scott said he does his best to make sure the experience is as close to the one he had growing up in Indiana.
"I have all the hot chocolate you can drink, all the cookies you can eat," he said. "Santa stopped by. The music is playing. It's all lit up around the tent."
A similar scene has been playing out at Heidi Heath's stand on U.S. 41 since Thanksgiving Day. Heath's family first came to Naples 42 years ago, and fell in love with the area. The Heath family sold Christmas trees in Wisconsin, and Heath said her parents thought it would be better to sell trees in Naples.
They've been here since, and the stand hasn't moved an inch from the parking lot on U.S. 41, tucked between a gas station and a Publix.
Keeping it in the same spot for more than two decades means Heath's stand sees dozens of repeat customers each year. Those customers, she said, often come back at the same time and get the same type of tree each year.
"People are creatures of habit," she said.
While more live Christmas trees are still sold each year, the number of artificial trees purchased has been on the rise. The National Christmas Tree Association reported 9.5 million artificial trees were bought in 2011. That's up from the 8.2 million purchased in 2010, but it's down from 2007 when 17.4 million artificial trees were purchased.
But Heath, whose family grows some of the trees for sale on both their Naples and Fort Myers lots, said she doesn't think sales of artificial sales will ever outpace those of live trees.
"I think to me a lot of the holidays are about aroma and smells," she said. "(Live trees) look unique. Every year it's different. It keeps a little creativity. It's not the same old, same old."