It was the day before Christmas and Santa Claus was having a tough time. The supposedly jolly man's 75 Christmas trees just were not selling at his lot on Wisconsin and Drummond avenues, despite the fact that he had cut prices in half.
So, to entice folks into the Chevy Chase lot, Santa donned his beard and red suit and stood on the Wisconsin median strip, shaking his belly and waving at motorists.
A few drivers honked in appreciation, but some flipped obscene gestures his way. A few people threw paper cups. One fellow even spat at the poor man.
"And this," said the 17-year-old Santa, Mark McCullough, "is what I do to relax when business is slow."
McCullough's frustration at the Canadian Fir Tree stand yesterday -- the last day of the tree season -- was shared by many other workers at the dozen Christmas tree stalls along Wisconsin Avenue, where tree sales were reported down a bit from last year.
Most merchants on Washington's "Christmas Tree Row" attributed the decline to the city's slow economy. "It probably has something to do with inflation but you can never tell for sure," said Bob Flynn, looking over the 100 or so trees remaining in his lot on Leeland Avenue.
"Most people have been really cordial," another dealer said. "But they just look and don't buy. I guess the prices scare them away."
Indeed, as Christmas Day quickly approached, scores of unwanted trees leaned against one another at stands along the row. It was a pathetic sight.
"It is kind of sad, isn't it?" asked 10-year-old Walter Wray, looking wide-eyed through wire-rim glasses and cradling a wet football in his arms. Wray took a reporter on a tour yesterday of Christmas Tree Row.
"Here's Sundback's," he said, leaping out of the car and pulling on the sleeve of Eric Sundback. He always sells his trees."
For 13 years, Sundback has sold firs at four locations in Washington. It's a full-time job, he said. In fact, it is the only job he has.
"I grow 'em myself," said Sundback, a red-cheeked man with a pine-tar-handsake. "I go all over the country collecting seeds the rest of the year, then I grow 'em in Pennsylvania."
Sundback's trees are so attractive that the White House honored him this year by using one of his majestic firs as the official Christmas tree. "See, I always make a little profit. I have to," he said.
Next Wray pointed out Burtons Chevron on Bradley Boulevard, where the station's Popeye-like manager Bill Burton was keeping one eye on a line of 10 cars waiting for gasoline, and another on his mountainous stack of unsold firs.
"Some folks have been stealing the trees after we close down," he said. "Some Christmas spirit."
Burton said he would lose "a good 500 bucks" on his Christmas tree risk this year, the worst he has ever had selling trees. "Most people would rather have gas than trees. I'm a good businessman," he said, "but look at all them trees. I believe in Christmas as much as the next guy, but hell -- I'm no Santa Claus."
Business was so bad at the North Star tree lot on Wisconsin and Norwood streets that the stand's owner wasn't even on the premises yesterday. About 100 firs swayed slowly in the wind and rain beneath flickering lights.
"I think poor Cliff (the lot owner) just gave up and left," said Bernadette Gaffney, a next door neighbor.
All told, about 700 trees remained unwanted late yesterday at stands along the row. "Some people come in and see all the trees we have left and ask what we do with them. I tell them we freeze the trees and bring them back next year," said Dick White, manager of the stand at the Farm Womens Market on Willow Street. "Some actually believe me."
In fact, beginning Dec. 26, the leftover trees will be burned, crushed into mulch to adorn flower beds, or dumped at local landfills.
"It ain't pretty," admitted burton.
Walter Wray frowned and pulled up the hood on his jacket. "It's a shame, that's what it is."