Five-Foot, Fifty-Dollar Green Beauty
They smell good. They stand in an inch or two of water, fastened into a plastic dish. Their boughs hold strings of lights and ornaments, delicately carved wooden shepherds, bright and gaudy metallic things, balls, tinsel, depending. They mesmerize you as a kid, you sit looking longingly at the gifts beneath, you feel a quiet joy when the lights come on, which in your family means taking the extra-long matches and lighting candles fastened to bending branches in wobbly metal holders. Your people love any excuse to sit by candlelight, sing songs and eat ginger cookies, your people love Christmas.
As a teenager they disgust you. Trees from the forest, cut down to stand for a few scant weeks inside living rooms all across the western world? Nasty chemicals sprayed on trunks to ward off pests, so that the tree will make it through the five, six years needed before being sawed off and carted to town, shipped cross-country, loaded into SUVs and minivans, carried upstairs, ascending in elevators, to be decorated and pointed at and ooh’d and aah’d over as they stand dying? Kicked to the curb once the holiday ends.
In your late twenties, you begin to feel nostalgic. You and Jessica have made a home together. (You’re friends, not lovers. But the neighbors don’t know this, and you don’t have the heart to tell them that the young hip lesbian couple to whom they were so looking forward to demonstrating how not homophobic they are, is actually queer family. You laugh at the absurdity that two women living in a single-family neighborhood not having sex is somehow more threatening to heteronormativity than gays having babies.) A home at Christmas seems to demand a tree, or at least a mighty evergreen branch. You find out that a group of women who are part of a post-prison job reentry program are selling trees downtown. Well, that’s that. The trees have already been cut so why not support the women? You banter with them, you buy the tree, you take it home and decorate. After Christmas, a new tradition is born. You invite all of your friends over on January 1st to burn the tree in your backyard, and then you snag another from the curb and you have two. A friend leads the group in an improvised ritual, you write on slips of paper what you’re letting go of, and what you’d like to invite in for the new year. You tie all of your goodbyes to one tree and all of your hellos to the other. You light the first tree. You light the second. The sight of your friends’ faces illuminated by hot light, standing in a circle as flames leap into the air, as needles crackle and burst, as sparks fly, this image will stay with you. This moment feels holy.
Then you move to coastal Brazil, then you move to New York City, and life is too busy for home-making. You barely have time for houseplants, though you begin to see their value. When the green-growing world was right outside your door, bringing plants inside seemed like an unnecessary nuisance. In the city you see how potted vines can help you breathe, give you something to care for, maybe even stave off depression. But lugging a holiday tree into your flat doesn’t even cross your mind.
Christmas 2020: The closing act in a year of unprecedenteds. People stay home for the holidays, and they miss their far-away families, and they’re nostalgic for the before times, and they want their homes to smell good and feel festive and cozy. Christmas tree sales skyrocket. Some sellers report a 200% increase in sales, some begin to run out. Everyone wants a tree.
Still, you say you won’t buy one.
On a Friday night in mid-December, after a long writing day, you finally send off the pages you needed to send. It’s 10pm and you’re antsy. There’s nowhere to go, there’s no taking the train to Barbès and crowding into the backroom to shake it with the Slavic Soul Party, there’s no finding a friend for a glass of wine at a cozy bar and catching up on the week. There’s just your apartment and the chilly outdoors. It’s lightly raining. You set out on a meandering walk, decide to buy beer at Mr. Mango. You buy a deck of cards too, it’s their last deck, and the solid pack of cards still wrapped in plastic makes you feel happy. You haven’t played cards since you were a kid, can’t remember any of the games, and buying the deck makes you feel playful.
Across the street they’re selling Christmas trees and wreaths. There’s a little booth set up and behind it an RV, right here in the middle of town. You wander over, and even though these trees are dead, severed things, they draw you close. You think of what you learned in The Overstory, how evergreens emit scents to send messages, they warn each other of approaching pests, and maybe they also talk to humans, speaking to us through fresh woodsy smells, making us like them and want to protect them. Well, these trees are done for, and you’re not sure whether to mourn or revel, but either way, you have to get closer. Turns out the shop is still open.
The man selling trees is tall and has kind eyes. His name is Jody. He is not from the city. He lives in his RV year-round, spends part of the year in Vermont, part in California, part in Mexico. He comes into the city for several weeks every year for this gig, keeps strange hours because the trees can’t be left unattended. His considered way of speaking and his pauses between thoughts give him away as a person of the earth. There’s something more tender and open in him than most city people and he seems just as delighted as you are to be speaking with a stranger. You are bubbling over with enthusiasm because here’s a person who knows about trees and it’s 10:30pm on a Friday night, the crowds of Christmas tree buyers are long gone, and you talk of Douglas Firs and Frasier Firs and he shows you the wreaths he made and you tell him about The Overstory and The Hidden Life of Trees and he’s intrigued. It’s funny, because he’s carted dead trees into town and you’re lighting up talking about live trees and the importance of protecting them, but as two people who care about trees in one way or another, it feels like you have a lot in common. You buy a wreath. You feel very special walking home at 11pm in the rain, with a six-pack of IPAs, a deck of cards, and a fragrant evergreen wreath.
A few days later, you give in. You and your roommate and her boyfriend have an impromptu pre-holiday feast, and after wine and dinner and heavily spiked eggnog and Bananagrams, the three of you realize that you do in fact need a tree. You return to Jody’s stand where he’s faithfully watching over the evergreens from his little booth, and it takes him a second to recognize you from your previous chat, but then he does and proceeds to charm the three of you with his tree-selling tales. In previous years he set up his stand in Greenwich Village, across from a bar. He explains that there was usually a lull from around 9pm to 2am, and then the bars would let out, and tipsy guys would try and woo their lady-friends by buying them a tree, on the spot.
You leave with a pretty-on-one-side Douglas Fir, and a tree stand that Jody throws in for free. The next morning the three of you reconvene in the living room, somewhat surprised to see that your own late-night-tipsily-purchased-tree is still with you. But there she is, your five-foot fifty-dollar green beauty.
Some months later, after the trees have been stripped of ornaments and placed on the curb and the NYC Parks Department has collected them and shredded them into fragrant wood chips, and after you’ve helped spread the wood chips around tree beds as part of the city’s Mulch Fest, you come across a piece in the Times about Christmas trees, and they feature Jody’s stand! The article describes the same facts he shared with you, his cross-country RV treks, his annual New York City Christmas tree selling gig, the way that tree sales rose exponentially this year.
By the time you finish the article, you’re laughing out loud:
Many vendors develop close ties to neighborhoods they visit year after year, finding companionship during their long cold days on the street. “I’ve been preached at, I’ve been lectured, I’ve been edified,” Mr. LaBonville said. “I feel like Lucy with the psychiatrist’s stand.” In the dark winter of 2020, more customers than usual may seek his ministrations.
The 2021 holiday season is upon us and there’s ample reason to believe that the symbolic weight we’ve placed on festive, fragrant evergreens is gathering girth. Tree prices are climbing even higher than last year, stock is low, and people are paying as much as $300 to bring the physical manifestation of the Christmas spirit into their homes. A few days ago, the New York Times dedicated one of their graphic narrative sections to illustrations of sidewalk tree buyers and sellers, once again profiling your Fort Greene tree guy. And then there was last week’s bizarrely sensationalized story of the 50-foot fake Christmas tree being set on fire in front of Fox News’ New York City headquarters. Their anchors have been basking in outrage, citing the incident as further evidence of out-of-control violence in democratic-led cities, calling for Christmas tree burning to be considered a hate crime. Overcome with emotion, Fox’s Ainsley Earhardt questioned the character of the homeless man who set the tree on fire, called him a ‘Scrooge’ for attacking Christmas trees, which are, says she “about freedom, about Jesus, about Hanukkah…” Well.
As for you, this season you’ll forgo lugging a tree up three flights of stairs into your Brooklyn apartment. Instead, you’ll get on a plane for the first time in over two years. You’ll gather with your Christmas-loving people around the pretty tree they’ve managed to find at a modest price from a nearby farm, and together you’ll bask in the glow of candles in wobbly holders affixed to bending but sturdy branches.
Francesca Hyatt is an assistant editor at Killing the Buddha and the author of Forestwish (Ghostbird Press 2022). She teaches undergraduate writing courses at Queens College, CUNY where she also received an MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation. Learn more at www.francescahyatt.com or follow her on Instagram @francescavhyatt.