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Scrawny Christmas trees lift spirits and raise funds for school

Frank Pichel has sold wild pine trees from land he owns to raise money for a school in Richmond, Virginia.

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Pedestrians walk past Frank Pichel’s tree lot in Richmond, Virginia (Will Newton/AP)

Pedestrians walk past Frank Pichel’s tree lot in Richmond, Virginia (Will Newton/AP)

Pedestrians walk past Frank Pichel’s tree lot in Richmond, Virginia (Will Newton/AP)

A man has raised money for a school in the US that provides scholarships for students from an impoverished area by selling scrawny-looking Christmas trees.

Frank Pichel’s wild pine trees resemble the droopy, pitiful tree made famous in the 1965 children’s animated classic A Charlie Brown Christmas.

They have been flying off a tiny neighbourhood lot since he started selling them last month to raise money for Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia.

The school was started in 2009 by parishioners and priests who wanted to help children from low-income families change their lives.

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Frank Pichel prepares to close his lot after selling out of trees (Will Newton/AP)

Frank Pichel prepares to close his lot after selling out of trees (Will Newton/AP)

Frank Pichel prepares to close his lot after selling out of trees (Will Newton/AP)

Mr Pichel has sold 180 trees from land that he owns and raised more than 5,000 dollars (£3,750) for the school.

His customers say the imperfect trees seem appropriate in a year that saw the world struggle with the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Customer Camm Tyler, a 36-year-old digital consultant, looked over his uneven tree as he propped it up against a fence and prepared to carry it home.

“This is the perfect 2020 tree,” he said.

Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School is funded entirely by donors and local foundations.

All of its 118 students receive full scholarships.

Mr Pichel, a commercial animator and part-time professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, does not have children or any other connection to the school.

But after donating some sports equipment to the school a few years ago, he decided he wanted to do something more this year.

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Mr Pichel has sold 180 trees (Will Newton/AP)

Mr Pichel has sold 180 trees (Will Newton/AP)

Mr Pichel has sold 180 trees (Will Newton/AP)

He thought of the gangly Virginia pine trees that grow wild on a 66-acre plot of land he owns about two hours west of Richmond.

Would people want them for their Christmas trees, he wondered?

His trees are not like the full-branched, perfectly shaped trees many people buy for Christmas.

Instead, most are scrawny and uneven-looking.

But Mr Pichel decided to give it a try.

At first, he picked out the best-looking trees on his land, thinking they would appeal to more buyers.

But then he thought of the sad-looking tree in the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

His trees are taller than Charlie Brown’s but just as scraggly.

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Brian Palmer holds his recently purchased tree (Will Newton/AP)

Brian Palmer holds his recently purchased tree (Will Newton/AP)

Brian Palmer holds his recently purchased tree (Will Newton/AP)

“When people want a Charlie Brown tree, they want the uniqueness and the weirdness. The ones with the fewest branches sold the quickest because they’re even more like Charlie Brown’s,” Mr Pichel said.

Mr Pichel cut down 70 trees, loaded them into the back of his pickup truck and started selling them straight after Thanksgiving from a small grassy lot he rented for one dollar from two generous owners who wanted to help.

He was stunned by the response, selling 180 trees in three weekends, raising a total of 5,554 dollars (£4,160) for the school.

He let people set their own prices; most paid 20 dollars (£15) to 50 dollars (£37) for a tree.

“Some people just stopped by and said, ‘I don’t want a tree. I just want to make a donation’,” he said.

Rei Alvarez, an illustrator and musician, said he and his wife loved the nostalgia and “Charlie Brown aesthetic” of Mr Pichel’s trees.

“I totally grew up with it, totally,” Mr Alvarez said.

He said buying a less-than-perfect tree fits with his desire to avoid the commercialism of Christmas and to teach his two-year-old son to appreciate the simpler things in life.

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Mary Jane D’arville plays the harp while Marlysse Simmons and son Desi Alvarez, two, listen (Will Newton/AP)

Mary Jane D’arville plays the harp while Marlysse Simmons and son Desi Alvarez, two, listen (Will Newton/AP)

Mary Jane D’arville plays the harp while Marlysse Simmons and son Desi Alvarez, two, listen (Will Newton/AP)

“As an artist, I know it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it,” he said.

“You give the few branches you have a little love.”

As Mr Alvarez picked out a tree, Mary Jane D’Arville played the theme song from A Charlie Brown Christmas and traditional Christmas carols on a harp on the pavement next to Mr Pichel’s lot.

Ms D’Arville, who met Mr Pichel at a local dog park, offered to provide Christmas music as soon as she heard what Mr Pichel was doing for the school.

“Those trees, they represent that whole spirit of the Charlie Brown Christmas,” she said.

School head Mike Maruca said the community enthusiasm for Mr Pichel’s trees is attributable to “people wanting to help their neighbour”, in this case, the school.

He said it is a sentiment that may be stronger this year because of the devastation caused by the pandemic.

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Peter Taffs, Marcie Taffs, 14, Juno Taffs, 11, and Clare Van Loenen with their tree (Will Newton/AP)

Peter Taffs, Marcie Taffs, 14, Juno Taffs, 11, and Clare Van Loenen with their tree (Will Newton/AP)

Peter Taffs, Marcie Taffs, 14, Juno Taffs, 11, and Clare Van Loenen with their tree (Will Newton/AP)

“Maybe all of us are feeling a little bit like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, given 2020,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re all feeling like robust, well-proportioned trees. We’re all kind of bruised.”

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