Before we’ve even finished clearing the table and packing up the Thanksgiving leftovers, the Christmas tree sellers are putting the final touches on their sidewalk pop-up tree lots. They’ve been at it since the wee hours of the morning. By nightfall, the frosty air is scented with the sweet fragrances of fresh evergreens -- the Christmas holiday season has officially begun!
The Christmas tree tradition began in northern Germany in the 15th century. Fresh evergreen trees were cut from the forests, brought inside local guildhalls for the holiday and decorated with sweets for the enjoyment of the guild members’ children and apprentices.
The 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther is said to have been the first to bring a live tree into the home on Christmas Eve and decorate it with lit candles, replicating how the glittering stars outside seem to ornament the trees of the nighttime forest.
The first artificial Christmas trees were also a German invention. In the mid-1800s, people began to create so-called “feather trees” by attaching dyed goose feathers to wire branches in an attempt to mimic the soft, feathery boughs of pine trees. Fun to make and no messy needles to clean up after the holidays.
More realistic-looking phony trees of the type that we know today, with the green bristly branches, were first produced in 1930 by the Addis Brush Company as a way to expand their product line beyond broom heads and toilet brushes.
During the Space Age of the 1960s, aluminum trees became the rage. The most popular versions of the metal trees were manufactured by the Aluminum Specialty Company of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Appropriately, a 20-pound piece of the Russian satellite Sputnik 4 fell to earth September 5, 1962, on North 8th Street in Manitowoc.
However, diehard traditionalists insist that a real evergreen tree is the only way to decorate for the season and in cities like New York, you don’t have to travel more than a couple blocks to find a great selection of real trees to choose from and carry home.
Uptown X-mas Trees owns and operates 19 such pop-up sidewalk tree lots in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side from Columbia University northward to Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood, Riverdale, and the Bronx. Plus a lot in the midtown Theater District at 43rd Street and 10th Avenue.
Tucker Grant is one of Uptown’s beloved “merchants of joy.” He runs the lot at 207th Street and Broadway. We caught up with him outside his little red hut on this chilly 40-something morning, which to Tucker probably felt pleasantly balmy, being a tall, strapping New Englander. Even at 9:10 am on a Thursday, a number of people stopped by to ask questions and look at the selection. He had a chance to chat between helping customers.
Tucker Grant helping a customer at the 207th Street & Broadway tree lot.
So where do you grow up, Tucker?
I grew up in Morrisville, Vermont.
Is that where all these trees came from?
Well, they come from different farms. Some are from Vermont. But we also have trees from Quebec, Nova Scotia. Even some trees from out in Oregon, the farthest we’ve ever bought from.
It looks like you have a lot of different kinds of trees here.
We usually stock four different types – Fraser firs, Balsam firs, Douglas firs, and white pine. But this year we didn’t get any Douglas firs. Actually, the trees we got from Oregon are called Noble firs.
Which ones last the longest in the house?
Like everything else this year, Christmas trees have gone up in price. What’s the most expensive tree on the lot?
Well, it goes by height $50-75 on up. Right now, we have a huge, 13-foot Balsam that’s going for around $450.
But I see you also have wreaths starting at $35 and garlands for $2 per foot, and these little bunches too and the tiny Rudolph things, so that’s cool. Do people haggle with you over the prices?
Oh yeah, that’s part of the experience, right?
Potted table trees, garlands, swags and Rudolph-nose ornaments are also for sale at Tucker's tree lot.
When you were a growing up, was Christmas your favorite holiday?
It was. But, you know, when I was a kid, my folks used to come down to the city and sell trees, and I would stay with my grandparents while they were away. And then when they came back home on Christmas Eve, it was a really nice thing to look forward to!
So, you’re a second-generation Christmas tree vendor?
Yep, passed down from generation to generation! My folks sold trees down here at the same spot in the 1980s and ‘90s. And once I was 14, I’d come down and help out on the weekends. When I turned 18, I’d come down and stay, doing the night shift from 8 pm to 8 am.
This is a 24-hour operation?
Oh yeah. I’ve been doing this for about 10 years. Worked my way up the ladder.
What’s your favorite thing about selling trees?
I mean, I can talk trees all day. I just really like explaining the different types -- the talking points of each tree, right? You know, some smell stronger, but they shed more. Some are longer lasting, but they don’t smell as strong. It’s fun to inform people.
OK, what’s your least favorite thing about it?
Well, not being home for the holidays. I come down here before Thanksgiving, and then I go back up on Christmas Day. And usually I'm pretty beat on Christmas Day, so I don't really get to celebrate the holidays as everyone else does.
What do you do when you’re not selling Christmas Trees?
I’m a carpenter. It's good, the contractor I work for is pretty flexible with me coming down here for a month.
Do you live in this little red hut the whole time?
HA HA! No. It’s way too small for me! I share an apartment in Harlem with other folks who came down to sell trees.
Thanks Tucker. I’ll probably come back and get one of those Rudolph noses!
This was fun -- have a great day!
The trusty red hut -- it's small but warm inside!
Christmas tree vendor in 1925 at Broadway & Academy Street, near the same location where Tucker Grant has his tree lot today.
Photos: Martin Luther at home, Creative Commons; Aluminum tree, Creative Commons; 1925 tree vendor, MyInwood.net/Cole Thompson; all others, the author.