The first Christmas tree I remember with any clarity was the tree my mother bought the Christmas of 1963. I was 7 years old and President Kennedy had been assassinated just weeks before.
We waited till Christmas Eve, my mother explained that the tree man would want to get rid of any trees he had left and we would be saving money. So Christmas Eve my mother and I set off to the Christmas tree man on the corner of Franklin and DeKalb avenues, the northeast corner of our housing projects. There was a big empty expanse of asphalt between the curb and the first building there, an ideal place to sell Christmas trees.
She said it was ok to wait till Christmas Eve because in Mexican tradition Christmas really isn’t over till January 6th, Dia de Los Reyes. That was the day the three kings found Jesus and gave him gifts. If we’d still been in Mexico we would have had to wait till the 6th for our presents, just like baby Jesus. But my mother was savvy enough to know her American brought up kids demanded their gifts on Christmas day. So it was a sort of compromise. And no double gifts.
There was a big man with a red florid face smoking a big stinky cigar selling the trees. He smelled of whiskey just like my father and wore a colorful woolen cap.
It was cold and he had a barrel with stuff burning in it to keep warm.
“What can I do you for, Mrs.?” He asked cheerfully as my mother inspected the trees, her face set in her “I can smell shit” expression.
“Tell him we want to buy a tree,” she said to me in Spanish. I was embarrassed to have to translate for her. At 7 years old I was already a judgmental so and so that thought my mother should learn how to speak English properly if she was going to live in the United States.
“My mother wants to buy a tree mister.”
“Okay, sonny, tell her to pick one out!” I looked at the sign and it said Christmas trees $5.
$5 was a lot of money, my mother had said. We can’t afford $5. That’s why we had waited.
Mama found one she liked and pointed to it.
“Sure, lady, that’ll be five bucks.”
“No, mister, $2.” My mother countered.
“Uh uh, lady. Not $2, $5. Okay, I’ll do her for $4 since it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Please, mister. $2.”
Mama could be stubborn. “Son, tell him it’s all we have,” she said to me in Spanish. I was paralyzed, the man was big and scary and I didn’t want to make him mad. My mother proffered the two crumpled one-dollar bills and made a sad, imploring face. “Please, mister,” she added.
The man let out a big sigh. “Yeah, sure, lady. $2. It’s Christmas Eve, so I gotta be nice. Two bucks it is. Don’t tell anybody else, ey?”
I nodded dumbly in agreement as the man wrapped the tree in some twine. My mother hoisted the tree up onto my 7-year-old shoulder and supported the end of the tree as I bore the brunt of the weight and we set off for our building around the corner.
Today I bought this year’s tree up near Broadway and 157th Street near our home. I bought our tree at the same place a couple of years ago and even though pricey I won’t have far to carry it. I saw some nice 5 to 6 footers, and asked how much.
“These are $55,” the nice young fellow in his Covid mask said.
“A little too much for me, I said.” I walked over to the smaller ones, and picked one that was barely 4 feet tall.
“These are $45 plus tax.” Tax? Since when did they start charging tax on Christmas trees?
“So what’s that come to?” I asked.
“The tax is about four bucks.” I said nothing, just though for a second. Almost 50 bucks for a tree.
“I could do you for $40. With the tax it’s $43.” I got a deal and I didn’t even have to ask! I must have subconsciously learned my mother’s facial expressions.
“Yeah, okay, I said, digging out my $43. The guy cut a fresh cut into the tree and put it through the netting wrapping gizmo. I put the tree in my Whole Foods trolley and headed down the hill to the back door of my building.
We have a new kitty that’s probably never seen a Christmas tree so I put it up and haven’t decorated it yet. I want to see how she reacts to the tree first.
Every year when I buy a tree I try to remember other years, other trees.
Last year I went to get a paper on Broadway the day after Thanksgiving and there were two small trees in front of a fruit stand on 158th Street. They were just leaning in front of a storefront gate.
“Are these yours?” I asked the fruit guy, a middle-eastern fellow.
“Yeah, sure. They’re mine.”
“How much for one tree?” He thought about it for a second and then said “$10, mister.” I gave him a $10 bill and got a Douglas fir the same size as the tree I got today for $33 less. I don’t even know if that fruit guy actually owned the trees but I’m glad he got the ten bucks.
One Christmas when I was married to my first wife Kat we were so broke we had no tree. I was on welfare and she was collecting unemployment due to our drug habits, so we taped some Christmas tree lights to a wall in the shape of a tree. The next year was a little better, and we managed a scraggly Charlie Brown tree.
Things with Kat weren’t always so dire; after we had a son and both started working again we always had big trees and lots of presents under them.
Then there were the Christmases my now wife Danusia and I had in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We lived on Broadway just a block from Woodhull hospital, in a neighborhood as devoid of green as the Mohave Desert. And that meant Christmas trees, too. The first Christmas there I walked almost all the way to Greenpoint before I found a tree seller, and had to pay to have it delivered. At least they carried the 7-foot Blue Spruce up the stairs. In 2007 it cost $70 including the delivery.
The following year Danusia surprised me by walking through the door one night carrying a 6-footer.
“Where’d you get the tree?” I asked.
“I got it on East 3rd street, only $30!”
“How’d you get it here?” I asked.
“On the subway! All the people on the J train thanked me for bringing the wonderful smell of pine on the train!” Only Danusia could buy a tree in Manhattan and tote it on the subway to Williamsburg all by herself, one of the reasons I love her so.
A couple of years later, after we’d moved up here Hamilton Heights it was my turn to go downtown to the $30 for any tree place and tote it up on the subway. I took a little shopping cart to make things easier on myself and nobody thanked me for bringing the tree smell on the train. I’m not as charismatic as Danusia, I guess.
But I got the tree up the 5 flights of stairs and we had a great Christmas. Thinking of that tree reminds me to be grateful we live in an elevator building in Washington heights now, a short walk from that 5th floor walkup, and I’ll never have to walk a tree up and down the stairs ever again!
Merry Christmas, everyone!