Landscape Designer “Scotty Claus” And His Elves Put Life into the Christmas Tree Tradition

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DnA talks to the founder of The Living Christmas Company, a Southland business that rents out living trees during the holiday season.

Scotty Claus
Scott Martin (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Most of us who mark the holiday season with a decorated tree do so without thinking too much about where it came from or that the pine smell we like so much is excreted by the cut tree as it dies. But this did worry landscape designer “Scotty Claus” aka Scott Martin, so much so that five years ago he founded The Living Christmas Company, a Southland-based business that rents out potted “living” trees. The goal was to do good environmentally while turning a profit and supporting the symbolism of the message of Christmas: the birth of new life.

Typically trees are ordered online, delivered and, after Christmas collected, by Scotty and his fellow “elves.”  But DnA got a chance to visit Scotty and the other elves at their site in the City of Carson. It’s a giant, brownfield owned by a utility company with an oil refinery in the distance. On this bleak expanse sit rows and rows of trees, all of them a little bit different and many of them with names — like Spruce Lee and Baby Treesus. 

Learn about the beauty in misfit trees and other insights in this Q and A with Scotty. And hear him discuss the company and its philosophical goals on this DnA broadcast.

trees in pots

DnA: Why do you call yourself Scotty Claus?

SC: It’s actually an important part of our business that everyone who works here, every elf here, has a Christmas name and so it can get stressful during the Christmas season and so we only answer the phone “Merry Christmas” and we only address each other by our Christmas names.

DnA: You don’t feel you have to say ‘happy holidays’?

SC: No we’re intentionally called the Living Christmas Company so I can give hugs and say Merry Christmas. If it happens to be Hanukkah I wish you a Happy Hanukkah.

DnA: Something really striking about your Christmas tree business is how different the trees are from each other. T hat strikes me as something quite different from other locations where you go to buy a Christmas tree.

SC: Correct. And one of the things that I’ve developed over the years is ‘what are the trees that can grow here in Southern California?’. And so over the years I’ve collected different varieties that grow here; Monterey Pines, Aleppo Pines, and we’ve introduced a Colorado Blue Spruce that has turned out to grow really well in our California climate. They look more like the traditional noble Fir that people are used to in that they have great shape, great color and hold ornaments really superbly.

This Monterey Pine for example, when you crush the needles we say that it stinks like Christmas. One interesting thing about the smell of a Christmas tree people associate with bringing in the house, is that it’s been cut, and that’s where that Christmas smell comes from, it’s actually slowly dying. These trees do smell like that once we’ve trimmed them but the fact that they’re alive and not being trimmed means that they, by standing alone, smell less.

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DnA: One of the attractions of a Christmas tree is the smell, so people might hear this and think, “but I want the smell” so could you take a few of the little needles and crush them and if you did, would you have that Christmas tree smell?

SC: You would, though I would say it’s not something we would encourage wholesale for our customers to be, you know, picking at the ends of this but if you know you have a few houseguests coming over and you just pinched of a few ends of the needles, you’d get that aroma.

DnA: You also have trees that you call Misfits. What are they?

SC: The misfits are those that we like to say have character. And one of the things we’re trying to redefine is the idea of beauty. Is that tree that came from Washington or Oregon and is going to be thrown away, is that beautiful? Or is something that’s alive and living that has meaning and potentially was with another family the year before and has a Christmas story already embedded into it, is that beauty? And so we offer these misfit trees because some of our customers just see the beauty in that and that it’s a living tree and so we’re proud to be able to offer that.

SC: What we find by and large is that if you’ve gone to the trouble of renting a living tree, you’re more conscientious than the general population. And we’re fairly lenient on how they come back. But some do come back crispy and those folks get put on the naughty list.

DnA: There’s a naughty list? 

SC: Yeah, the idea behind the Living Christmas Company is that we keep things alive here.

DnA: You are a landscape designer and you even did a minor called Regenerative Studies. Tell us, from the perspective of someone interested in regenerative studies, what lay behind this?

SC: So that idea, again, is really about faith in humanity. We have the ability to degrade the earth but we also have the ability to regenerate it really well. So if we play towards that part of humanity, you know, that part that’s inspirational, then we together can make an impact. So before your options were an artificial tree or one that died after Christmas. But the regenerative principle is that there is a better way of doing this, and we ask what happens when you give meaning to something that used to be thrown away. What we like to say is, what value do you want to hand on to your kids? If you had a tree in your front yard would you cut it down just to bring it in the house for two weeks? And why do you get a Christmas tree in the first place?

DnA: Yes, why do we bring a Christmas tree into the house? And has it always been associated with the Christian tradition or does it precede it? It feels almost pagan.

SC: My understanding is that is has some pagan roots but if you look at the Christian tradition of the baby that arrives at the end of the year and what that means for new hope and new beginnings into the new year, those symbols are in play with a Christmas tree. All these trees, even the tall ones, are still really infants compared to how long these trees will live. And so in that way, these are baby trees that are coming into these people’s homes, that are being welcomed, and they’re gonna continue living on into the new year.

DnA: Are you yourself Christian?

SC: I am, yes.

DnA: So do you see your company as a means of delivering the Christian message?photo (54)

SC: I haven’t seen it that way in the past — I’d thought of it more as helping people celebrate the cultural aspect of Christmas — but in that I’m able to enhance that meaning and symbology, yes. Absolutely.

DnA: The idea of forming a business through which you can express your principles, is that a contemporary expression of faith?

SC: Yes, absolutely. I think that might even be uniquely Southern Californian or Californian in general, to be able to do a business in line with your beliefs, and find there isn’t anyone that would say no to you here. There are not very many places where I could say, I’m going to rent a living Christmas tree and I want to do it based on these principles, you’ll find someone that says “I believe that too”.

DnA: There is something really fundamental about the decorated tree in the house. It seems to transcend religion.

SC: Yes, and living trees show up in each of these major religions be it Buddhism or Judaism, living trees play a large role in all of these.

I think it is a symbol of life and wisdom and this idea of being connected to the ground that we walk on.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Learn more about the Living Christmas Company here.