Every year, an army of friendly, woody vendors, many from Quebec, sell live Christmas trees on the sidewalks of New York.
Street vendors are ubiquitous in the cityscape, but New Yorkers have a particular fondness for Christmas tree migrants. For a month every winter, Christmas tree vendors become the glue-cement neighborhoods. In the street, most of the hours, they are the first to say hello and the last to say good evening; their presence creates a small town atmosphere in a city of 8.4 million inhabitants. At a time when disease traps New Yorkers inside, tree vendors remain a resilient force, keeping morale high and connections intact.
Tree dealers descended on New York City as early as 1851, when a tree sold for $ 1. Today, these sellers enjoy a special status. A municipal law of 1938 decreed that “traders and hawkers may sell and display conifers during the month of December”. The so-called conifer exception was enacted following citizen protests against then-mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s “war on Christmas trees”, in which the reformed mayor banned the sale of trees in the streets of the city without a permit, in an effort to pave the way for automobile traffic.
Since then, Christmas tree vendors have flourished in all 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 town every Thanksgiving night through December 25; the vendors then stay on site 24 hours a day to sell the trees and protect them from theft.
Since permits are not required, this is a largely unregulated business. Sales and wages are delivered in cash, under cover of obscurity, and trade secrets are tightly guarded. Some vendors rent sidewalk space in front of any store that will offer it to them. Others participate in auctions run by New York City Parks and Recreation, which offers five-year contracts for spaces in city parks that can cost anywhere from $ 1,000 per year in less attractive locations to $ 50,000. or more at SoHo Square on Sixth Avenue. Competition for spaces and customers creates conflicts between sellers. Stories about bidding wars, espionage, fighting, and even the burning of tree stands are rife.
Big companies, notably Evergreen, which operates the majority of New York City’s tree stands, are powerful, but individual vendors are at the heart of New York’s Christmas tree business. Many come from Quebec, whether their trees are or not; they are recruited by the logging companies because they are winter hardy people, ready to camp for a month, sleeping in their vans or their cabins.
It is profitable work. A single stand of trees can earn anywhere from $ 7,000 to $ 30,000 per month. It offers the adventure of weeks in the Big Apple. But the working conditions are harsh. Many stalls are open 24 hours a day. And even if they are not, trees must be protected from theft, more or less anchoring vendors to the stall day and night. If vendors have another place to stay overnight, they can load their unsold inventory onto a truck for the night, but they still have to wait at the stand for overnight tree shipping and take care of after-hours deliveries. residents of nearby apartments.
Mental stress makes hard physical labor worse. Vendors carry large sums of money across the border when they return home and fear detection when they go through Canadian customs on their way back to Quebec. (For this reason, they avoid media attention in New York.)
Selling Christmas trees requires marketing moxie. Vendors make sure their stocks of trees, carefully pruned for symmetry, are suitable for the surrounding neighborhood – smaller, cheaper trees for a block of modest apartment buildings with no elevators, towering evergreens in an area with luxury apartments and businesses. The sellers themselves are part of the display. West Village vendor dresses American boyfriend in faux Quebec lumberjack outfit; in another part of the village, a French-Canadian salesman with perfect English voluntarily thickens his accent to add to hispeasantpicture.
A stereotype of Quebeckers turns out to be true: They are extraordinarily nice and friendly, which helps salespeople attract the same customers year after year. This joyful presence also reinforces the real and perceived safety of the streets and the sense of belonging of the residents.
This is why so many local residents seek them out, bringing them coffee, sandwiches and soup, especially in bad weather. Stores allow vendors to use their washrooms. A resident can watch a booth while the vendor walks away. Vendors and the homeless often establish mutually beneficial relationships involving exchanges of food and protection.
This holiday season –COVID Christmas– was strange for New York and its Christmas tree vendors. Many sellers have struggled to get to New York, with the Canada-U.S. Border closed to non-essential travel due to the pandemic. The ban doesn’t include Christmas trees, but it does impact the people who sell them. Quebec sellers cannot cross the border legally, although some have crossed it anyway. This year, the fear of being detected by customs authorities is even more intense than usual.
New York City has suffered more than its fair share of trauma over the past 20 years. But the most difficult moments revealed both the harshness of the city and its sociable side, almost small town. The latter is depicted in a Christmas tree subculture that is as much a part of the New York vacation as the ornate storefronts on Fifth Avenue.
Like at Christmas, the vendors come every year. And in this year of pandemic, in particular, they remain essential hubs of safe contact with the community, against enforced isolation. The annual ritual of welcoming tree vendors, buying trees, and bringing them home to the cold should give New Yorkers courage as they celebrate the symbols – and substance – of their survival and of their good will.
LinDa Saphan is an artist and social anthropologist at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Riverdale area of the Bronx, NY Kevin Cabrera graduated in 2018 from the College of Mount Saint Vincent. This was written forZócalo public square.
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