Even COVID can’t stop New York City’s sidewalk Christmas tree vendors

December 24, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
New York City’s resilience, the authors write, “is exemplified in a Christmas tree subculture that is as much a part of holidays in New York as adorned shop windows on Fifth Avenue.”
Nina Westervelt—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Every year, an army of friendly, woodsy-looking salespeople, many from Quebec, sell live Christmas trees on New York City sidewalks. 

Street vendors are ubiquitous on the city’s landscape, but New Yorkers have a particular fondness for the Christmas tree migrants. For one month every winter, Christmas tree sellers become the glue cementing neighborhoods together. On the streets at most hours, they’re the first to say hello and the last to say goodnight; their presence creates a small-town ambiance in a city of 8.4 million people. At a time when disease is trapping New Yorkers inside, tree vendors remain a resilient force, keeping spirits high and connections intact.

Tree vendors descended on New York as early as 1851, when a tree sold for $1. Today, these salespeople enjoy special status. A 1938 city law decreed that “storekeepers and peddlers may sell and display coniferous trees during the month of December.” The so-called Coniferous Tree Exception was enacted following citizen protests against then-Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s “war on Christmas trees,” during which the reform-minded mayor banned selling trees on city streets without a permit, in an effort to clear the way for automotive traffic. 

Since then, Christmas trees vendors have expanded throughout the five boroughs, with the densest concentration in Manhattan. Trucks from Quebec, Nova Scotia, Vermont, and North Carolina, working for large companies, deliver tens of thousands of trees to vendors around the city every night from Thanksgiving until Dec. 25; the vendors then remain onsite around the clock to sell the trees and protect them from theft. 

Since permits are not required, it is a largely unregulated business. Sales and salaries are delivered in cash, under cover of darkness, and business secrets are closely guarded. Some sellers rent sidewalk space in front of any store that will offer it to them. Others participate in auctions operated by New York City Parks and Recreation, which offers five-year contracts for spaces in city parks that can cost anywhere from $1,000 a year in less desirable locations to $50,000 or more in SoHo Square on Sixth Avenue.  The competition for spaces and customers creates conflicts between vendors. Stories about bidding wars, spying, fights, and even burning down tree stands are rampant. 

Large companies—notably Evergreen, which operates a majority of New York City tree stands—are powerful, but individual vendors are the heart of New York’s Christmas tree business. Many come from Quebec, whether their trees do or not; they’re recruited by the tree companies because they are winter-hardy folks willing to camp out for a month, sleeping in their vans or their sales huts. 

It’s a profitable job. A single tree stand can net between $7,000 and $30,000 in a month. It offers the adventure of weeks in the Big Apple. But the working conditions are harsh. Many stands are open 24 hours a day. And even if they aren’t, the trees must be protected from theft, more or less anchoring sellers to the stand day and night. If sellers have somewhere else to spend the night, they might load their unsold inventory onto a truck for the night, but they still must wait at the stand for the nightly shipment of trees and take care of after-hours deliveries to nearby apartment dwellers. 

Mental stress compounds the hard, physical work. Vendors carry large amounts of cash over the border when they return home and fear detection when they pass through Canadian customs on their way back to Quebec. (For this reason, they shun media attention in New York.)

Selling Christmas trees requires marketing moxie. Vendors ensure that their tree stocks, carefully trimmed for symmetry, suit the surrounding neighborhood—smaller, less expensive trees for a block of modest walk-up apartment buildings, towering evergreens in an area with luxury apartments and businesses. The vendors themselves become part of the display. One West Village vendor dresses her American boyfriend in a faux-Quebecois lumberjack getup; in another part of the Village, a French-Canadian vendor with perfect English purposely thickens his accent to add to his paysan image. 

One stereotype of Quebecers turns out to be true: They are extraordinarily good-natured and friendly, which helps vendors draw the same customers year after year. That cheerful presence also heightens the actual and perceived safety of the streets and residents’ sense of community. 

That’s why so many local residents look out for them, bringing them coffee, sandwiches, and soup, especially in inclement weather. Stores allow vendors to use their restrooms. A resident may watch over a stand while the seller steps away. Sellers and homeless people often establish mutually beneficial relationships involving exchanges of food and protection. 

This holiday season—the COVID Christmas—has been a strange one for New York and its Christmas tree vendors. Many sellers faced troubles getting to New York at all, with the U.S.-Canadian border closed to nonessential travel because of the pandemic. The ban does not include Christmas trees, but it does impact the people who sell them. Vendors from Quebec cannot cross the border legally, though some have crossed anyway. This year, fear of being detected by customs authorities is even more intense than usual.  

New York City has borne more than its fair share of trauma in the past 20 years. But the most difficult moments have revealed both the city’s toughness and its sociable, almost small-town side. The latter is exemplified in a Christmas tree subculture that is as much a part of holidays in New York as adorned shop windows on Fifth Avenue. 

Like Christmas, the vendors come every year. And in this pandemic year, particularly, they remain essential hubs of safe community contact, counteracting forced isolation. The annual ritual of welcoming tree vendors, buying trees, and carting them home in the cold should buck up New Yorkers as they celebrate the symbols—and substance—of their survivorship and goodwill.   

LinDa Saphan is an artist and social anthropologist at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Riverdale area of the Bronx, N.Y. Kevin Cabrera is a 2018 graduate of the College of Mount Saint Vincent. This was written for Zócalo Public Square.

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