NAPLES, N.Y. – Someday, the story of the purple Christmas trees might be passed on from generation to generation, making spirits bright like Rudolph’s red nose and Frosty’s magic hat.
This weekend, as many people head out to remote areas searching for the perfect tree to decorate for the season and place gifts under, consider this from the Hanggi’s Tree Farm in the heart of grape and wine country in upstate New York.
The farm is in Naples, just under 40 miles southeast of Rochester.
A woman was driving past the farm when she spied a purple tree among the traditional green varieties. So she stopped to take a photo and send along to her cousin, who loves the color purple.
That prompted the question, how does the tree turn purple?
She concocted a story, saying a special snail that only lives in Naples used to ingest the tannins from grapes that drop on the ground and then excrete the byproduct into the ground, which in turn leeches into the tree roots and gives the trees their purple color.
David Hanggi, co-owner of the family farm, said she put it on Facebook and the story went viral.
“That’s of course a joke and not really what happened. It’s a great story,” Hanggi said. “I took care of that girl when she came down to get her tree that year because our business exploded even more because of it.”
“It scared the bejeebers out of me, and so I went out and bought a lot more paint and painted a lot more trees,” Hanggi said.
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How does the tree go from green to purple?
Paint – a food grade paint that’s non-toxic. So if pets chew on it or kids get a hold of it, it’s not going to harm them, Hanggi said.
And in the right hands, it’s not that hard to do, but you’ll have to trust him.
“It’s a ‘grandma’s secret apple pie recipe’ type of thing,” he said.
David and Celeste Hanggi took over the family farm from his parents four years ago. Around that time, while attending a summer convention of the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York, they saw a painted tree.
The paint was green, and meant to be used in case a tree was off-color.
Celeste’s wheels first began to turn and she tried, unsuccessfully at first, to talk her husband into trying it. Then after seeing a demonstration of how it was done, he was a convert.
They did their first tree purple – remember, Naples is grape country – before a fall Naples Grape Festival.
“It’s just cool. It’s something different, something neat. I just thought people would enjoy that,” Celeste said. “I was right. They sold.”
That they did, although business for the painted trees didn’t exactly explode, David said. About 5% of what they sell are painted trees.
This year, the 50 or 60 painted trees are either sugar plum purple or midnight blue. In previous years, they tried orange, because some of their customers came from Syracuse – and they come from Rochester, Buffalo, Elmira and Pennsylvania – but they didn’t look right when the paint faded.
They’ve done red, white and blue in certain election years, and they have been asked if they will do Buffalo Bills football team colors – someday, perhaps.
Purple, at least around here, is a constant.
Who wants a painted Christmas tree?
Tree farms from Long Island to Central New York and the Southern Tier offer them. In fact, some press coverage in recent years referred to their popularity as a “trend.”
The colorful trees tend to be sold by the time the Hanggis open up for the season. The needles tend to stay on the painted trees longer. If you’ve ever stepped barefoot on a pine needle on Christmas morning, you know how important that is.
Monica Schenk has a purple tree, which is outside her Naples pie shop, Monica’s Pies. People who stop in say they love it, Schenk said.
“I love purple and everything’s purple here at the pie shop. Purple’s for Naples. It’s just a pretty decoration out there and it fits in with the rest of my purple stuff.”
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As for decorating, well, Schenk said the tree is already decorated purple, so she just puts some lights on so people can see it at night.
David Hanggi said you can decorate any tree. Everybody’s got an attic full of Christmas decorations, he said, and they like putting their heirloom decorations on. Some people buy new stuff.
Use your imagination, he said.
“If you’re going to buy a tree that’s not traditionally green, then you already have imagination, right?” he said. “They want something different. They’ll figure it out.”
Folks like natural trees, green or some other color
But even the Hanggis, like a majority of their customers, are traditionalists of sorts.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year, with close to 350 million real Christmas trees currently growing on Christmas Tree farms in the U.S. alone, all planted by farmers. There are close to 15,000 farms growing Christmas trees in the U.S., and over 100,000 people are employed full or part-time in the industry.
Many customers appreciate the traditional green tree and the Hanggis have plenty to choose from, said Benjamin Hanggi, David’s son. His wife, Kristin, handles a lot of the marketing for the farm.
“Everybody likes something different,” Benjamin said. “We all have the things we want in our house we want to see at Christmas time. Some people like the uniqueness of painted trees, and it brings them back every year.”
“To see the smile on people’s faces, especially the kids. The kids are all excited,” he said. “I love bringing joy to as many people as I can. This is the best thing in my life that I’ve found that does that.”