Halkidiki: the home of Greek Christmas trees

Every year on December 6, fir plantation owners from the village of Taxiarchis, on the northern Greek peninsula of Halkidiki, unload their year’s crop on the city streets, attach the bases to the trees and set up their display lights. From 7 a.m. to midnight, until December 23, they live in the hope that the last fir will be on its way to yet another Athenian living room. «For us, work is not counted in days, but by how many trees we sell over the 20-day season,» says Dimitris Malandris, who continues a family tradition of cultivating fir trees on the mountainsides of Holomontas. «We usually work on the basis of the previous year’s sales, so as to avoid losses. For example, I have brought about 600 trees. I believe, and I hope, they will all go,» he added. An experiment that developed into the main source of income for an entire village began in the early 1960s, when the residents of Taxiarchis, seeking alternative crops for their fields, planted the first fir trees. Now they amount to over 7 million. Every year 100,000 more are planted, of which about half are harvested. «Early in November, we begin preparations for the harvest,» said forest ranger Ioacheim Vordos. «The trees to be cut are marked, the bases ordered, transport arranged right down to the last detail. At the same time, all eyes are on the heavens – an early snowfall or extreme heat could do untold damage. Once the trees are felled and carried by hand to the edge of the fields, they are then hauled by animals or vehicles to the final loading point, where they are stamped for market.» «If you come to the village, you won’t see a native fir anywhere,» explained Malandris. «For every tree that is felled, two more are planted. We have explained this in the brochure we give customers. There are some people who still believe that someone goes out at night and cuts down trees from the forest. They don’t know that in Taxiarchis, as in other parts of Greece, people live by cultivating fir trees. It is a difficult, time-consuming and demanding process. First of all, the seeds are planted in the nursery, then the seedling is planted out in the field two years later. We work hard all year for these three weeks in December. The trees you see here are 10 years old.» At the corner of Mavromataion Street and Alexandras Avenue in Athens, Yiannis arranges his open-air display. A few meters away he parks his truck, or his «storeroom and home,» as he says. «From 7 a.m. to midnight, I am on the job here, rain or shine, then I sleep in my truck. I’ve been coming here for 30 years. Once our sales totaled 40,000 a season. Now the market for natural firs has expanded to the suburbs, where trade is shared out. In the old days, whoever bought a fir tree in Athens came by here. We know everyone,» he said. Every afternoon, shortly after 3 p.m., the first glasses of tsipouro (arrack) are poured. «Home-brewed, with lots of aniseed, to go down easily with a bite to eat, to warm us up. We brought it from home. Don’t forget that we are mountain people and are used to the cold,» says Michalis. «We set up our tables, we treat our customers who know how to appreciate it. We enjoy ourselves.» They know most of their customers by name, their tastes, the time they can expect them, they remember whether they buy their trees early on or whether they are last-minute buyers. «The ones who come here have made up their their minds. They have a look around, they’ll choose a tree and off they go. They don’t need convincing why real trees are better than those ‘Made in China.’ For 35-40 euros, you can have an average-sized tree about two meters tall or a smaller one for 20-25 euros. Why buy an artificial one? We already have enough plastic in our lives, why should it be part of Christmas? If you have a real tree in your home, you come in with your eyes closed and the house smells like a mountainside, and most importantly, your child smells it too, and it may never have seen a real fir tree.» This article was published in the December 19 issue of «K,» Sunday Kathimerini’s color supplement.