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GENEVA, Illinois (Reuters) - Beleaguered Americans may have to trim the size of their Christmas tree this year or cut back on gifts to afford one, but few will do without the holiday centerpiece no matter how bad the economy.
Industry insiders from tree farmers to people like Rick Rusin -- who sells trees in the corner of a small shopping mall parking lot in the western Chicago suburb of Geneva -- say that while consumers are tightening budgets, for them it's business as usual.
"So far sales haven't been the best I've seen, but they're also far from the worst," said Rusin, 26, who is in his seventh year selling trees from Thanksgiving in November to Christmas Eve on Dec 24. "I would say it's just an average year."
"Some people have complained about the price, but I get complaints every year," he added.
The 500 Christmas trees he has to sell for about $10 per foot stand here in several inches of snow waiting for new owners. Despite bright sunshine it is bitterly cold, and Rusin is cheerful, not least because he still has this seasonal work after recently losing a full time job in a warehouse.
"I love this job, it's so much fun seeing how much kids enjoy buying their trees," he said, bare hands stuffed deep in his pockets, his nose red with cold.
While the Christmas tree may be a sacrosanct part of family festivities for tens of millions of Americans, some consumers are expected to economize on other things to be able to have a tree or downsize to a smaller tree or cheaper variety.
"Some people may be forced to cut back on gifts to afford a tree," said Bill "Captain Jack" Dennis, who runs the online Christmas Tree Farm Network and used to own a tree farm in Iowa. "Others will look for a smaller or less expensive tree."
The tradition of bringing a tree indoors and decorating it for Christmas has been traced back to Germany in the 16th century. Some say it has pagan origins.
Last year 31.3 million American households bought real Christmas trees at an estimated cost of around $1.3 billion, up more than 9 percent from 28.6 million households in 2006, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA).
Fake, or artificial, Christmas tree sales jumped 87 percent to 17.4 million in 2007 from 9.3 million.
NCTA spokesman Rick Dungey said that "over the years we've found the economy doesn't impact tree sales that much at all."
"As a family tradition, it's way too important," he said.
Looking at the economy, American consumers apparently have little to feel cheerful about as the holidays approach.
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the unemployment rate rose to 6.7 percent in November, compared with 4.7 percent a year earlier. Some 1.8 million Americans have lost their jobs since June alone.
For those who are still employed, credit conditions have tightened, making it harder to borrow money to buy goods, and many Americans are struggling to pay their mortgages.
As a result, sales at most retailers have taken a hit, with one notable exception being the colossal discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, sales at U.S. retailers fell 1.8 percent in November, the fifth consecutive monthly decline.
But despite the bad news, or perhaps even because of it, some argue Christmas tree sales will remain strong.
"People really like traditions in this country," said Catherine Howard, editor of trade publication Christmas Trees Magazine. "And when times are tough they like to cling to those traditions because they make them feel comfortable."
"This industry is very young because 50 years ago people just went into the woods and cut down a tree, so there isn't that much historical data available," she added. "Some (tree) retailers are certainly going to feel pain, but recent history would suggest most sellers won't be that badly hit."
Back in Geneva, Rick Rusin said that he often orders a second batch of trees by mid-December if the selling season is going well, but hasn't done so yet this year.
"I think we're going to take it easy and see how sales turn out before we order any more this year," he said.
In Greenville, in central Michigan, Tom Trechter has been in the Christmas tree business since 1985. The owner of Mathisen Tree Farms sells some 100,000 trees annually and said that sales this year were slightly up over last year.
Most of the growth has come for smaller trees of between 5 feet and 6 feet tall. In previous years, trees measuring 10 feet to 12 feet have proved to be more popular.
"But whether that's people buying smaller trees for smaller homes or people cutting back, I don't know," Trechter said.
"I haven't had many calls from retailers with orders for additional trees," he added, a departure from previous years. "Maybe they're afraid to go out on a limb."
Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Eddie Evans