Ka-chingle bells: why we’re paying through Rudolph’s nose for a Xmas tree this year
|2020: The year a Xmas tree costs more than a NY cocktail...
But this year, what’s causing us to drop our $6 pumpkin-spice latte in the snow? The price of Christmas trees.
I’m not talking about the $6500 Rockefeller center lookalikes destined for cavernous corporate lobbies and Tribeca penthouses. I’m talking about the modest, 3-4-footer for the typical Manhattan studio or 1-bedroom apartment. This kiddie size – still taller than a child who still believes in Santa - enables you to slide 3.5 gifts under it and hang more than a single Charlie Brown red bauble without it falling on its tinseled tush.
And the Covid Christmas price? $75.
|Tree HQ, parked on a bike lane near you
“Amazon, Walmart - all those businesses bought ‘em all up making it really hard for us,” said the young seller who popped his head out of the makeshift sales shed as I admired three little firs on plastic stands.
“They don’t rely on selling Christmas trees to make a living - we do.”
And what a living it is: holed up in a lean-to hammered together in the bike lane, it’s a 24/7 shared-shift gig that requires way more than the average customer service and stock-surveillance skills.
“It was really intense at 2am at the other location downtown,” said his co-worker, a young filmmaker, as she cast a watchful eye over her neatly-trussed trees waiting for new living rooms.
“But I have my baseball bat…”
|One of Santa's toughest elves: you steal my tree, you can kiss my baseball bat
Apparently, young, drunken NYU student revelers find it amusing to band together and make off with a tree or three. That’s when our seller comes back swinging.
“I chase them down the road with my bat and say, I’ll give you a choice: hand over the tree or pay for it. Or I call the police.”
And to her credit, it seems they often pay up because they’re drunk but rich. And who could argue with her bat-swinging logic? Moreover, how can you have a merry Xmas in front of a stolen tree?
Other times, she said, homeless people get into a
fights near her stand, and it’s like the final scene from the Godfather, only with pine needles flying instead of blood. It’s a tough holiday gig guarding the merch 24/7, requiring a rotation in a tiny heated guardhouse.
While we chatted, passers by stopped, asked the price, then backed away on hearing “75.”
|The "brownstoner" and "mini-loft" sizes
“When our bosses told us the price, we said, how on earth are we gonna be able to sell them? So we bought ornaments to go with each purchase.”
To sweeten the deal, each tree comes with a freebie set of three Made in China plastic ornaments and a homemade flocked ribbon. Also on offer is a selection of simple wooden ornaments carved from slices of tree trunk. All made by these two sellers. There’s even a listless Charlie Brown Christmas tree made from a bauble-ready limp branch, for $5 "for those with a really, really small place.”
|The Grinch soon discovered that the "little bit more" was free delivery and 10% off with Amazon Prime...
I was really starting to admire the gumption of these kids, and found mind slowly turning “$75 no way” into “$75 to help stimulate the local economy.”
Nothing makes it easier for people to give you money than a bit of personal connection and a good story...
Nonetheless, as we of Asian descent seem genetically hell bent on doing, I asked for the “best price.” The young man was apologetic, but stood firm – “we got yelled at by the boss for selling a tree for less than $75 yesterday.”
I decided to walk around the block to think about it – and sleuth out other tree sellers and their price points.
|A Chelsea Snowperson guards the median strip
My search was fruitless. Covid and Big Box Brother had thinned the ranks of tree sellers as well as pins forests.
By the time I got back, all three little trees I'd been admiring had been sold - proof that $75 was now the new $45.
|The device used for trussing trees, ready for the journey to a living room nearby...
For real-tree neophytes (yes, you with the plastic tree), there’s more than one variety to choose from. The two most popular kinds are the Fraser Fir – slower growing, less needle-shedding but with less pine smell, and the Balsam pine – faster growing, softer needles, and a distinct pine smell.
Driving up the price of the Frasers this year is scarcity – apparently after the GFC, farmers planted less of this fancy variety.
|Fraser vs Balsam, courtesy of The Strafford County Master Gardeners Association
I found myself pondering on the social politics of tree height. The biggest trees “$500-$1500” – end up in places with high ceilings. That translates directly to the most expensive real estate – luxury condos with 10-14 foot ceilings, and brownstones with parlor floors at 12-14 feet.
From there, you drop down to the working class 8-foot ceiling, then tiny Manhattan studios, then dorm room desks for the Charlie Brown special.
There’s a tree height for everyone.
We looked at a few more, spinning them around to see which ones were symmetrical and rejecting those with a distinct "front and back" ("You know there's a front and a back of a Christmas tree, don't you?" - my mother).
So with a bit of sawing and drilling, and an iPad swipe later, a little $75 tree was ours.
And here it is: 4 feet of love, labor, creativity, story and survival-by-baseball bat. $75 well spent.
|My tree in a New York state of mind, complete with a Kosta Boda snowball - read my post about that classic collectible