One of my favorite parts of the Christmas season every year was our family’s annual visit to the Christmas tree lot. We would pile into our stationwagon, listen to Christmas music on the radio, and count how many houses were decorated with Christmas lights. Once we arrived at the lot, my siblings and I would wander through the Winter Wonderland of Christmas trees, looking for what we considered the perfect tree. To me, the tree lot was full of magic and it’s pine-scented air heralded the beginning of the Christmas season. Even today, the Christmas season doesn’t really begin for our family until the Christmas tree is up.
The Vario family of Tooele feels the same way about Christmas trees. Pat Vario and his wife, Julie Jensen Vario, have worked for almost 40 years to create a Christmas tree lot that invokes memories of family and magic throughout the Tooele Valley and beyond.
For Pat, though, the Christmas tree business has been part of his entire life. Pat’s father, Ernie Vario, began selling Christmas trees when Pat was a boy. He and his five siblings grew up in Ophir, where they learned the family business of cutting and selling trees for Christmas every year. Pat has early memories of riding on horses that were used to drag the trees out of the forest every year.
“I was too little to walk through the snow, so my dad would put me on a horse and have me stay there,” Pat said. “I’m surprised he even brought me. I always felt sorry for the horses because they had to work so hard.”
Ernie’s family sold their trees at a lot on Main Street at the old Conoco Station for years. They built fires in 55-gallon drums in order to keep themselves and their customers warm. After Pat and Julie took over the Christmas tree lot in 1978, they moved from their home in the southern end of Tooele to a home at 381 W. Utah Ave., which accommodates a lot in their own backyard. Here, they have worked hard to create a lot that is inviting and provides interests for family members of all ages. They have a gazebo with seating and a fire pit for people who need to take a break from their tree shopping to get warm. They also have a barn filled with hay bales as well as horses that many children enjoy feeding, petting, and even sitting on for photos. In the past, Pat had a variety of rare sheep that were a novelty for customers and part of the Christmas tree-buying experience.
This family-friendly atmosphere keeps customers coming to Vario’s Christmas Trees to purchase their trees each year.
“We have some customers who have been buying Vario trees for 50 years,” Pat said. “We even have several customers from Salt Lake that bring their entire extended family to the tree lot each year. They will rent a trailer to carry the trees, stop at McDonald’s to eat, and then come to our lot to get their trees. It is a family outing that they look forward to every year.”
Vario’s Christmas Trees is a family lot in another way as well. Four generations of the Vario family have worked at the Christmas tree lot, building a business as well as a family in the process. Pat and Julie’s three children and 10 grandchildren have all worked the tree lot through the years. Besides selling trees, the next generation of the Vario family have also made and sold food and crafts at the lot, and some of the older grandchildren were part of the group of Varios that traveled to Hamilton, Mont., each year to cut trees.
Working at the Christmas Tree Lot not only provided the Vario children and grandchildren with extra money for Christmas, but it also taught them the value of hard work , honesty, and the importance of treating people right.
“One of the reasons I took over the lot was to give my kids and grandkids a place to learn how to work,” Pat said.
Now, though, most of Pat and Julie’s grandchildren have grown up and moved away for college and jobs. One grandchild comes home from college on the weekends to help and their youngest grandchild is a junior at Tooele High School, but as a wrestler Christmas tree season coincides with wrestling season, so he is unable to spend much time at the tree lot. Instead, the lot is primarily run by Pat and his brother-in-law, Jerry James. Julie is still a big part of the business, and sometimes Pat’s sister, Joyce Hunt, helps as well.
Despite these changes, Vario’s Christmas Trees continues to thrive in an industry where it is estimated that 10 percent of customers are lost each year to either an artificial tree or no tree at all.
“It surprises me how many people don’t even put up a tree anymore,” Pat said. One reason that the Varios have maintained such a strong customer base over the years is their attention to the quality of their trees. When Ernie was running the lot, the trees were cut in Ophir, but over time, the Varios began cutting trees on ranches in Morgan, Scofield and the Uintah mountains. As the ranching industry continued to decline and ranches were sold to developers, the Varios had to cut their trees in Montana. But over time that land was gone as well.
Today the Varios get their trees from a tree farm in Oregon. They are very selective in choosing the type of tree farm they work with, selecting a farm that is also a family business that has been growing and selling Christmas trees for the past 40 years. The Varios have been working with this Christmas tree farm, located just outside of Portland, for four years, and they are very happy with the quality of trees they buy.
The Varios have sold a variety of trees over the years. The trees in Ernie’s day were mainly Black Balsam. Now the Varios sell mostly Nobles and Pinons. Pat said that the Noble is the most hardy of farm trees so it generally lasts longer into the season. Recently, though, the Varios have started selling a Nordsman tree. This tree has a smaller trunk and a more natural look due to its lack of pruning, a look that many customers prefer. Even Pat and Julie have a Nordsman tree in their own home this year.
One thing Pat has learned over the years, though, is that personal preference really counts when picking a tree. Several times he has thrown trees to the side thinking that no one would want them, only to have customers see them and declare “that is exactly what I was looking for.”
Pat also realizes that once people find the tree they are searching for, they want it to last throughout the Christmas season. That is why he sells the best Christmas tree stand on the market and lets his customers know the right way to care for their tree. Lots of water and cooler temperatures keep trees fresh and safe throughout the season. However, if a tree dries out for any reason, the Varios will replace it, no questions asked. Pat mentioned that just a few hours earlier a couple stopped by whose tree had dried out the year before.
“They left last year to celebrate Christmas somewhere else and I told them I would give them a replacement tree the next year,” Pat said. They stopped at the lot to remind him of this promise and he honored it.
The Varios also donate trees to the Children’s Justice Center each year, as well as contribute to the FFA program at Tooele High School. Members of Tooele High’s FFA come to the lot each year to help unload the trucks full of trees. To repay them, the Varios give them boxes of tree boughs for the floriculture classes to create and sell arrangements as a fundraiser.
There are many acts of kindness from the Varios that benefit individuals and families as well. One year, a couple with five young children came to the lot to choose a tree. Pat noticed that the father was in a cast to his hip so when they asked him where on the lot they could find a $15 tree, he said “Today is your lucky day. All of the trees are $15.”
After the family had chosen a tree and the Varios had loaded it, Pat slipped the $15 to the oldest child telling him, “Use it to buy a present for your mom.”
The next day the family came back with a large plate full of cookies and smiles on their faces.
Those smiles and great customers are what Pat and Julie said keep them motivated to run the tree lot. They love their customers and their loyalty.
Pat said, “Our customers are what keep our business running.”