As hallowed American traditions go, buying for a Christmas tree is surely among the least predictable.
Shoppers may buy a towering tannenbaum one year, then the following season switch to a tree small enough to stand on their coffee table.
A family that for a generation stuck with Douglas Firs may suddenly transition to a Noble Fir -- or a Nordmann, a Fraser or a Grand Fir. Or they may pitch the whole thing and go artificial.
That's all fine for consumers, but not necessarily for retailers, who have to anticipate not only changing consumer tastes but also play the role of an economist. Order too many trees, or the wrong kind, and they're left holding inventory when everyone else is opening presents.
Today, as the annual rite begins in earnest, local Christmas tree lot owners are expecting healthy crowds of shoppers ready to spend, even in the face of what many still regard as an uncertain economy.
Why the optimism? Simple: Last weekend's sales were looking as good or a bit better than they were a year before.
"I think we're up a little bit, maybe about 10 percent. That's always a good thing," said Mike Ross, owner of Mike's Christmas Trees, which has lots at the Kern County Museum and on Rosedale Highway at Old Farm Road.
It was also a good weekend for Alpine Christmas Trees, which has eight locations around town.
"So far so good," owner Chris Maretich said. "It's the best (first weekend after Thanksgiving) we've had since the recession, I think."
White Forest Nursery co-owner Jere White shares their positive outlook, but he bases his on a recent uptick in business at the nursery.
"There definitely is a loosening and a willingness to go out and do something special," White said. "Looks like the economy is turning around."
Maybe so. But some dealers wonder how much of last weekend's rush was inspired by the short holiday season. There are a mere four weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, one fewer than in recent years.
Considering most tree buyers already have theirs decorated by the weekend before Christmas, this year's compressed schedule brings special complications. Staffing must be increased, hours extended -- and there's no margin for error in ordering.
"We have to be ready," White said.
Another wildcard is the weather. People in the business say cold temperatures don't typically hold back tree shoppers, but snow and rain often do.
"It's even more critical (than the compressed season), and it's something we don't control," said the executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association, Sam Minturn.
Whether storms will keep local people away from tree lots this season is hard to predict. Cold and precipitation are in the forecast Kern County for this weekend.
Earlier in the week, the scenes at a couple of Bakersfield Christmas tree lots were almost Rockwellian. Laughing children darted between rows of trees, while their parents talked turkey with crew members bundled up in sweatshirts and gloves.
Lake Isabella resident Sheryl Debski was out shopping for a tree Wednesday night at the Alpine lot on Oak Street with her 16-year-old daughter. Together they picked out a 5-foot Douglas Fir -- at $20, a more modest choice than last year's 8-footer.
Debski said they didn't choose the less expensive tree out of concern about the economy. They did it because they plan to leave for a vacation the day after Christmas and didn't want to invest in a tree they wouldn't be around long to enjoy.
"I found what I was looking for -- something cheap," she said. "I like it."
Over at Ross' lot at the museum, Tim Chavez and his family opted for something more pricey: a flocked, $65 tree.
Normally they spend $20, the Bakersfield machine shop employee said. But this was the first year his 5-year-old son, Daniel, got to choose the tree. And he wanted a white tree.
"It's all about the kids," Chavez said. "Not us."