All About Christmas Trees in NYC
Of all the great pagan practical jokes shoehorned into modern American life, none looms larger than the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the Christmas Tree. With its roots in Norse and Siberian tree-worshipping animism, the Christmas Tree arrives in our homes as a compound symbol, bearing the fruits of both ancient solstice ritual and symbols; and of Christendom’s later efforts to burnish the message of Christ’s sacrifice. Suffice to say, the tradition of importing an evergreen into one’s home is one with many masters and just as many mistresses.
Americans will buy almost 35 million Christmas trees this year, 28 percent of which will be artificial (80 percent of which will be made in China), spending a total of just under $2 billion. Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania will grow the bulk of these trees supplemented by trees from Canada and a few other states: Maine, New York, Washington, and Virginia.
A relatively new crop in American agriculture, Christmas Trees were first cultivated stateside in 1901, when W. V. McGalliard planted 25,000 Norway Spruce outside of Trenton, NJ. Until WWII, however, the majority of trees in American homes were not farmed but rather, were wild harvested from forests. It was not until the postwar era that commercial production began to climb steadily. A significant uptick commenced in the late ’70s, continuing though the ’80s, before the market stabilized in the ’90s.
Market saturation in the early 2000s led to a correction in the first decade of the century, with sales declining from 2000 through 2007. Since then, sales have been steadily rising, bringing the market to a high-water mark in 2016, when a record $2.04 billion of trees were sold in the US.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade-group tasked with advocating for farm-grown Christmas trees — and, incidentally, the official supplier of Christmas Trees for the White House! — there are currently some 350 million trees in cultivation on approximately 310,000 acres nationwide, in an industry employing 135,000 folks.
Here in Greenpoint, you can find North Carolina and Pennsylvania grown trees at stands such as the nameless lot hugging the West side of the smog-choked artery of McGuinness boulevard, between Java Street and Greenpoint Avenue. A giant flopping Santa welcomes passers-by into a handsome forest of fir, redolent with the scent of evergreen, open 24 hours a day.
By a longstanding 1938 rule — the 1938 “Coniferous Tree Exemption” — evergreens may be sold outdoors on the streets of NYC without a permit, during the month of December. Curiously, indoor tree sales are strictly prohibited, citing fire hazards.
This nameless stand is overseen, like most NYC stands, by two French Canadians (who, in deference to our miserably messed-up current state of national affairs, would prefer to go unnamed), and is one of approximately 35 managed by their owner, who also will go unnamed (though we suspect he may be the infamous Kevin Hammer). The McGuinness stand competes with another 7 to 10 stands in the 11222 zip code, in an unregulated, all-cash business atmosphere that has occasionally seen competition spark over to violence.
“We can have about 500 trees on this lot,” says the stand’s manager, “And we expect to sell about 1000 trees by Christmas.” The math suggests that this stand could gross somewhere north of $35K over the month of December, with the stands’ co-managers netting between $5,000 and $7,000 each.
“My boss, he sends me the trees, but I set the price. I am not making my money by the price, but by the quantity I sell,” notes the manger. “I keep the price lower, but I sell more trees than anyone else.” He also supplements his income with the ubiquitous crafts found at stands throughout the city: reindeers, snowmen, and the like, made from discarded materials, and therefore beyond the reach of his boss. “We can make an extra $500 – $1000 from selling the small sculptures,” he says. “My partner makes them better than me.”
Which is not to imply that the money is easy: stands are open 24/7, with operators working 12-hour shifts, regardless of the weather. “The only problem we have here is when there is a big storm,” notes the manager. “One time, two years ago, there was a big storm, and the Greenpoint Avenue blow into our stand, and puncture the (inflatable) snowman,” he says, when asked about disasters. “The snow is good for business, but you get wet and cold very quickly.
Then again, cold and wet are to be expected in the trade. Together with his life-partner (“When we are in India, she will be my wife..”), the McGuinness manager spends 5 to 6 weeks living on the streets of NYC in his Westphalia van, working 12 hours shifts outdoors. “Because I have come here for many years, I have friends now that I can use for the shower, or I can borrow a gym membership,” he notes. “Also, many people bring me coffee, and sometimes beers, so it can be a cheap month. But you get cold.”
With his woolly earflaps heavy plaid jacket, and thick boots, the manager conforms easily to his lumberjack’s role, and is amenable enough to the work to keep returning. “We don’t have a traditional life, if you compare with someone else,” he concludes. “My partner and I, we are rafting guides in the summers. In the winter time, we are travelling alot. And in December, we are here in New York. We like it – especially the people”