As the nation continues to seek solace in tradition, sentimental symbols like the Christmas tree are more popular than ever.

And artificial wanna-be trees just won't do the job, apparently, as more Americans feel a greater need for natural needles and fresh forest smells than in years past.

Real tree sales will increase by at least 200,000 this year, according to the St. Louis-based National Christmas Tree Association. And of the 40 million families planning to buy a tree, approximately 32.3 million of them will buy farm-grown trees, according to a national survey conducted by the research firm Wirthlin Worldwide.

"The first weekend in December sales were up 50 percent," said Clarke J. Gernon Sr., treasurer of NCTA, who also owns the Shady Pond Tree Farm in Pearl River, La. "We're talking unbelievable numbers here and we're tickled pink."

Nigel Manley, who owns the Rocks Christmas Tree Farm in Bethlehem, N.H., said his business is up by 10 percent despite its location in "the middle of nowhere."

"More families are coming to the tree farm together this year," he said. "They come to get away from normal routine. Coming to the farm is an escape and an opportunity to do something together."

And not all of Manley's customers are local.

"One family flew in from Florida to get their tree together over the weekend and then took the tree back home on the plane," Manley said from his farm, located 70 miles from the Canadian border. "Another family came in who were going to Texas for a wedding and bought a tree to take with them on the plane to set up as part of the wedding decorations." 

Jacquelyn Bishop, of Media, Pa., said her family always buys a real tree for the holidays, and wouldn't consider changing the tradition now.

"When my kids were small we used to go and cut down a tree at a farm. That was always fun because everybody got involved. My 16-year-old still puts it up and decorates it. He's been doing it for years."

But why go natural when an artificial tree can be tucked away with nary a needle to vacuum after the season has ended?

"The biggest reason people love real trees is their aroma," said Manley. "It reminds them of Christmas every time they walk through the door. And once they get their tree it means to them that Christmas has started. That kicks off their season."

While Americans are gung-ho for greenery and sales are up, the price tag hasn't followed this upward trend. 

Gernon of the NCTA said tree prices would only increase about 1.5 percent this year, compared to 4 to 5 percent increases of recent years. 

"We're at a balance point where supply and demand has largely leveled out," he said. "It's a fairly happy situation."

Gernon said the mean price for a tree in 2000 was $34.24, only about a dime less than this year's price of $34.35.

Whatever the cost, many people want the tradition of having a genuine tree without getting muddy boots at the farm or trolling local lots. This year 300,000 consumers will purchase their real tree online or by mail, according to the NCTA.

"We've mailed to every state except for Hawaii," Manly said. "The customer just selects from the height and species chart on the Internet and we ship it to them." (http://www.therocks.org)

Technology may forge ahead but there's just no substitute for a holiday icon that takes people back to childhood with just a simple sniff.

"I can't even imagine not having a real tree," Bishop said. "There's already too much artificial everything else in this world."