Ah, Christmas Eve, when the holiday-shopping clock ticks its final tocks, and an intrepid few decide it's time to go out and buy the one little item they've overlooked:
From the top to the bottom of Broad Street yesterday, the sweet smell of pine formed a wintry mix with the lethal stench of panic, as last-minute tree shoppers pulled into roadside lots to buy the nicest tree they could find.
Or, failing that, virtually any upright stick of wood bearing a sufficient number of pine needles.
"I'm late," said Lillie Frazier, shaking her head as she chose from a selection of about 100 trees at a sidewalk lot near the Supremo Food Market in North Philadelphia. "I'm behind on my whole Christmas."
She paid $25 for a fir. Vendor Rondell Williams helped tie it to the roof of a car, then returned to prowling the sidewalk, a ball of twine in his hand, a wool cap upon his head, awaiting the rush he knew would arrive once the afternoon sun faded to dusk.
"They're looking for the last-minute discount," he said.
Do they get it?
The economy of Christmas Eve tree shopping is a seller's market early in the day, but favor turns to the buyer as the shadows lengthen. The size of any discount is often directly proportional to the Christmas cheer of the buyer, sellers said yesterday.
"We'll get that last straggler coming in, 'Please, I need a tree!' " said Brian Wallace, who started work at 5 a.m. yesterday, the early shift at Andy's Trees 24-hour operation, set up on a vacant lot just north of the old Divine Lorraine Hotel.
By midmorning he and coworker Justin Jones were down to 89 trees, having started the season with 500. They stood in a bracing, 40-degree wind, the ash floating from a nearby trash-barrel fire giving the appearance of a sparse, gray snowfall.
Customers were in a hurry to grab a tree and go.
"I don't have the time," one man said, waving off an attempt at conversation as he helped a friend load a tree into the bed of a pickup truck. "We're busy."
Ho, ho, ho.
Up and down Broad Street, last-minute holiday craziness was on full display, drivers treating red lights as mere suggestions and staring down other motorists with glares that asked, "Are you honking at me?"
Many tree lots had closed before the day began, leaving the wind to sweep away fallen needles and the last forlorn trees to await a trip to the chipper.
Every year, 30 million to 35 million live Christmas trees are sold in the United States, about 175,000 of them purchased not in person but through the Internet or catalogs, according to the National Christmas Tree Association in Chesterfield, Mo.
Live Christmas trees, which the industry prefers to call "real" trees, are grown in all 50 states and in Canada. The association points out that 85 percent of the artificial trees sold in the United States are made - cue the Grinch-like hissing - in China.
Christmas spirit is important to the people who grow and sell trees, because those who actively celebrate are more likely to buy live trees, according to association research. And this year, it seems, spirit is slipping.
In a mid-November poll, the association asked consumers to rate their overall Christmas spirit on a scale of 1 to 100. The average score was 67.6 - 3.4 points lower than a similar poll conducted on the same weekend last year.
"Traditions and memories are drivers for our product," said Beth Walterscheidt, president of the association. "People who are more into Christmas are more likely to use a real tree instead of a fake one."
Yesterday, Pete Amato surveyed the real trees spread across his lot at Broad and Passyunk.
"The spirit ain't what it used to be," he said.
Still, he said, Christmas Eve promised solid sales as buyers pulled up or walked over to inspect his wares.
Jessie McClay took his time, too, making a couple of rounds through the small curbside forest, checking to see which tree was too fat or too thin.
"I'm out at the last minute," he said, noting that in most years he has bought a tree well in advance. "Usually I'm on my game."
A busy work schedule left him only Christmas Eve to buy a tree, put it up, and get it decorated.
"I'm a little nervous, because I've got to make sure we get a tree for the girls," he said, referring to children ages 13, 15 and 17. "They're waiting on me right now."