As the holiday countdown accelerates, Christmas trees are on the run. Or more precisely, on the roll—in shopping carts and wheelbarrows—and on the lug, by hand. Streaks of deep green dot the dull gray landscape as the trees move by. I’ve seen them slung over shoulders like children, tucked under arms like medieval spears, and propped up like commuters on the subway. The doors open and the tree steps off, a memory of pine needles on the train floor. Sometimes the whole family chips in. Parents hug the end like goal posts while a couple of little kids lift the saggy middle. The whole street smiles at the effort. A grand behemoth is a joyful burden. Ten blocks home or five flights up can loom like eternity. But it’s an essential New York tradition—the tree must go on.
There they are, lined up like sentinels behind the scaffolding. I am always excited when the Christmas trees come to town, even if I never buy or own one, because they transform barren concrete sidewalks into magical tiny forests. Every time I walk by the fragrant firs, pines and spruces, I am transported from grey New York to my own private Narnia. Arriving around Thanksgiving and lasting until Christmas Eve, the seasonal trees elevate mundane places and turn routine chores into an adventure. You never know who might run out for a tube of toothpaste to a 24-hour drugstore at 2 a.m. and come home instead with a ten-foot spruce. And I can’t help wondering, are these truly just trees, or maybe—for those with special vision—a line of deep green uniformed soldiers guarding a dark red castle? Each time I walk by, I breathe deeply and stand a little straighter. You never know who might be watching.
I've seen just about everything lugged on a city bus, from musicians hoisting 6-foot-tall double basses to millennials with unassembled furniture. This was my first live Christmas tree though. The passenger swiped himself on and positioned his fragrant cargo in a seat in the back. I hoped the miniscule bus forest might inspire a round of holiday carols ("Deck the Halls" would have been nice), but the M5 bus is no La La Land. So I closed my eyes, breathed in deeply and imagined I could smell fir boughs all the way home.
It's a little known quirk of New York City law that anyone can sell Christmas trees on the street in December. All you need is permission from the owners of the store near your stand. Right after Thanksgiving, emerald forests sprout overnight on city sidewalks as tree sellers lug beautiful firs, balsams and spruces in from the country. The disruption of cold grey concrete with fragrant dark green needles is sudden and miraculous. My simple walk down city sidewalks becomes a soothing and soul-restoring forest bath.
The guardians of these overnight forests are the sidewalk tree guys (and gals), who drive and fly in from all over to tend their little patch of green. More than a few of them are hardy outdoor guides who might take you kayaking or river rafting in remote places in season. Their outdoor skills help them survive this grueling winter camp-out. They spend long freezing hours out in the cold and sleep in nearby parked cars and vans. They work in twos and threes and have sellers on duty all 24-hours, just in case someone needs a tree at 3 am. Would you?
They're super strong and constantly cheerful. Nobody wants to buy their Christmas tree from a Grinch, I guess. But imagine bringing an 8-foot tree up to the fifth floor of a walk-up. Ouch. I have seen majestic cousins of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree on my corner just waiting to be bought by some penthouse owner with 15-foot ceilings and wrapped up and delivered by hand. It's not an easy job, selling and delivering joy.
Another NYC quirk is that everyone believes their local tree guy is just the best. The city teems with "best guys" on every corner. Articles abound. There are a lot of fun facts about the tree man's perspective in this article and video. A few blocks away, two New Yorkers even made a short documentary about their "best guy" called "Tree Man."
But my corner guy IS the best, hands down. His trees are gorgeous and full, and, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. And his accessories make the outfit. He turns sidewalk drab into fab by creating a party piazza with overhead lights, rows of wonderful trees, lit flying pigs, twinkling white lights, glowing ornaments and bulb-wire presents. For non-tree buyers, he offers whimsical folk art like hand-carved pigs, snowmen, reindeers with branch ears, and even a wood Menorah for sale. A hand-lettered cardboard sign hung on a stripped down fir with branches only at the top says "Canadian Palm Tree." This is a tree guy with humor and imagination, who says he wants city walkers to feel and remember the magic of childhood.
Grateful neighbors honor and reward their tree guys by dropping off gifts of coffee, soup, sandwiches, blankets, music or sometimes even offering a hot shower. Even people who aren't in the market for trees like to stop, chat and help them out. Joy is contagious.
After taking his photo, I saw my tree guy in a whole new light. Check out the stars around him. They weren't there when I took the photo. Now I have physical evidence that there's magic in these trees, their tenders and our sidewalks. You just have to look a little closer...and remember.