The corner tree stand on the Upper East Side isn't what you think it is
We all know them from our neighborhoods: the corner tree stand, complete with lights, some wreaths, and the flannel-clad, bearded attendant sipping hot chocolate and chatting about this year's crop of evergreens.
But who are these people? Do they really hail from Vermont? And where do these trees come from, anyway?
Our Town went in search of some answers. While not an exhaustive study of the NYC Christmas tree trade, what we found may challenge -- or confirm -- your assumptions about one of the city's longest-standing Christmas traditions.
Myth #1: All the trees are from family farms in Vermont.
Some trees are no doubt from Vermont. But a lot of others are from big tree firms much further afield.
At Petrosino Square, a man with dreadlocks who declined to give his name ? we'll call him Jesse - was presiding over an impressive array of trees. Originally from Delaware, Jesse now does construction work in Canada. During the winter months, when construction slows down, he comes to New York to sell Christmas trees. He's been selling trees in the city for three years and said it's worth the long holiday hours.
At Petrosino, this year's crop of trees came mostly from North Carolina and Eastern Quebec. Jesse works for one of the major Christmas tree sellers in the city with a shift from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
At Washington Market Park, a man named John slings Blue Fir Frasers from North Carolina and Balsams from New Brunswick, Canada. He usually gets Noble Firs from Oregon but they're late this year.
"Should be in next week," said John. "People like them because they smell like citrus."
Myth #2: All the tree sellers are here to pick up a little shopping money for the holidays.
Christmas trees in New York are big business.
Sellers must bid on sites like Petrosino Square and Washington Market Park, paying tens of thousands of dollars for the right to sell in these locations, which are under the domain of the city's parks department.
John said the nearby Whole Foods at Greenwich Street and Warren Street is selling trees for the relatively cheap price of $50, but they don't give each tree a fresh cut like he does and his trees are top of the line.
"I treat these trees as if they're going in my own home," said John.
Up the street is a slightly more substantial tree stand at Theodore Roosevelt Park, another site bid upon through the parks department. Rich is from Brooklyn so thankfully doesn't have to sleep in a van every night. He's been selling trees for the past four years. He works 10-hour shifts selling trees that this year came from Canada, North Carolina and California.
"Go big or go home," said Rich of the stand, which is festooned with lights and is playing a constant loop of Christmas music. "We're New Yorkers and we know how to do it right."
Myth #3: All the attendants work for the tree farm.
At "Antonio's Trees" on 79th Street and Columbus Avenue, Antonio and his partner Daphne take turns working 12-hour shifts. When not selling trees they sleep in a white panel van parked at the curb. They're originally from Greece, said Antonio, and use the Christmas holiday in New York to fund their regular travel excursions abroad.
"I do this for the life experience," said Antonio. "People like buying trees from Europeans."
This is Antonio and Daphne's second year selling trees, and they plan to return next year. This year, they're running a special program called "My Tree and I" where they take a photo with every customer and their new tree. They're not sure what they'll do with the photos yet, but are thinking about turning into an exhibition for next Christmas.
At a stand on the Upper East Side on 67th Street and Lexington, a man named Frank said he's been selling Christmas trees in New York for 30 years. He's from Pennsylvania, and owns his own carpentry business. He travels down to the city every year and sells Frasier Fir trees from a farm in Pennsylvania. This year, he's also selling Frasier Firs from North Carolina.
"You can't hardly tell the difference," said Frank. "North Carolina Frasier Firs are just a little bit greener."
Every year he and his crew rent the same apartment for down time during the grueling 12-hour shifts. This year his daughter Rebecca made the trip with him, and they plan on making the trip next year "as long as they'll have us," said Frank, of his site.