For 75 years the peculiar holiday tradition of sawing a live tree from its roots, installing it in one’s living room, decorating it with bright baubles and blinking lights and paying it homage as it slowly dries and dies has helped the Cason family pay its bills.
With the unloading of more than 200 pine trees at the Cason Christmas tree stand at Albemarle Square this week, the family’s holiday earning tradition continues.
“It’s hard work. It’s as hard as cutting pulpwood and loading it. The labor is the hardest part. You have to pull them off the truck, stack them, lift them, shake them, sort them, display them, sell them, prepare them and tie them down. It doesn’t end until the last day,” said George Cason, 80, the family business patriarch.
“Of course, it was easier when I was younger, before I met the Itis brothers: Arthur and Burse,” George laughed. “They ought to do a man a favor and shoot him when he turns 65.”
By now, most of Central Virginia knows the Cason family. Founders of Charlottesville’s City Market, they were the subject of a documentary shown at the recent Virginia Film Festival called “Growing Up Cason.”
The movie presented the quintessential American family of hardworking parents and their seven sons — Leonard, Charles, Ralph, William, Jackson, George and Lee — and daughter Nancy who toiled to make a living in Depression-era Charlottesville, with few luxuries.
They grew their food. They canned as much as they could for winter meals. They bought pounds of beans, flour and cornmeal; they milked cows and ate a lot of biscuits.
And come the Christmas season, they would create holiday decorations, fell trees, pick a corner on Main Street and tote their trees to the site to sell. Every morning they brought them. Every evening they took them back to a Water Street site while at least one brother slept on the street corner in the cold to prevent other vendors from stealing their spot.
Things have changed. The site is safe. In the well-heated former bank building-turned Republican Party headquarters, with hot coffee, hot sandwiches and a bilingual mechanical Santa Claus who randomly signs and wiggles its hips like an inebriated, degenerate zombie, the Cason clan does its holiday business.
“It’s changed. It’s better,” George laughed. “Back then we wouldn’t start getting into selling the trees until the middle of December. Now we start on the day after Thanksgiving. We’d start making wreaths around the first of December and we’d put them in the creek to keep them cold and fresh. They used to go for a nickel or a dime back then and now they go from $10 to $45.”
For the past few years, the Casons have also given 5 percent of the proceeds from the Albemarle Square and Free Bridge stands to help fund Meals on Wheels. Last year they gave the local nonprofit $2,200.
“Meals on Wheels does a great thing and the people who get those meals, they really appreciate it,” George said. “Back in the day, people didn’t deliver food to people like they do now; you just had to find your own.”
The Cason Christmas tradition is slowly being taken over by nephews, children and grandkids, but George and the brothers have no intention of giving it up completely.
“My daddy was my age when he pulled his last hitch on the corner downtown. He was 80 and he passed away on the 10th of January,” George recalled. “I’d like to do a few more, so I don’t plan to go anywhere.”