A friendly voice cuts through the hum and blare of traffic on the corner of East 3rd Avenue and 84th Street on New York City’s Upper East Side, greeting people who show interest in one of the dozens of balsams, Fraser firs, Douglas firs, and white pines that line the sidewalk. As a customer arrives, Emily Mullen effortlessly picks up a tree that towers over her, weighing more than 50lbs—a tree that might have come from as far away as Oregon. She carries it to an open area, cuts its wrapping, and taps the trunk against the cold concrete to show the customer the beauty of a nine-foot Fraser fir.
“It’ll get fuller over time. Maybe 24 hours and it will start to reach its potential,” she says. “I always say that Fraser firs are shy. It takes them a while to open up.” The customer, buying for a client, looks around every angle of the tree before deciding to buy it and have it delivered a few blocks away that evening.
“When people come looking for a job, they tell me all the things they’ve sold. But I don’t care about that. I ask ‘What have you done outside?’ Most of our workers work seasonal jobs all over the place. They’re most at home on boats, in the woods, on a farm.”
— Jane Waterman, co-owner of Uptown Christmas Trees
Years ago, Uptown Christmas Trees advertised the job as “a vacation so weird that we’ll pay you to do it.” In the ʼ70s and ʼ80s, a time when New York City was known for what locals would call its “grit,” those who came to the city and took the job lived in old campers and vans, on the streets many New Yorkers would hardly walk down at night. Those years had turf wars and even Mafia shakedowns.
Times have changed since then, but street vendors still face brutally cold winds that whip through the corridors of concrete and glass, rain and snow—not to mention hours spent standing on hard pavement. People like Emily Mullen have gladly taken that weird “vacation” as “merchants of joy” though, continuing a tradition that goes back to 1851: bringing Christmas trees to the community.
EMILY TRIED OFFICE JOBS, BUT THEY NEVER SAT RIGHT WITH HER, SO SHE WENT BACK TO HER ROOTS …
For a while Emily “chased summer”, working in the U.S. before heading to Australia for their summer seasons, and back again.
A native New Englander, she eventually settled in Montana, working for a few years as a tour guide for a company that focused on the American West. But when the tourism season—like most everything else in 2020—was upended, she signed up for another job that tapped into her love of the outdoors, joining a crew that traveled between remote fire camps to keep frontline wildland firefighters fed.
With long days in these tough conditions, the crew would set up as close as they could to the forest fire, cooking the 6,000 or more calories worth of food each firefighter burns a day. At the season’s end, Emily returned home to the Northeast.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF NEW YORK’S CHRISTMAS TREE TRADITION
In the 1840s, an influx of German immigrants solidified the European tradition of Christmas trees in the United States. But for those without wealth or their own horse-drawn carriage, the prospect of cutting down their own tree put the tradition out of reach. In 1851, Mark Carr, a woodsman from the Catskills Mountains, harvested a few dozen fir trees with his sons and brought them to the corner of Greenwich and Vesey Streets in Manhattan. They sold out almost immediately, and a new tradition for New Yorkers was born.
Running a Christmas tree business these days is a logistical balancing act that requires sourcing trees from much farther than the Catskills. It’s a $2 billion+ industry with thousands of Christmas tree farms in America alone. For Jane Waterman and George Nash, co-owner’s of Uptown Christmas Trees, the effort starts as early as February with phone calls to growers all over North America, with most orders placed by June. The bulk of their stock comes from Québec, but they also work with growers in Vermont, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and a half load of Nordmann firs from Oregon trees to fill their expected sales and provide a variety of options to suit each neighborhood.
The night before Thanksgiving, trees start to arrive on tractor trailers in Marcus Garvey Park, Uptown Christmas Trees’ central depot, where they’re sorted to be distributed to each of the company’s 19 stands across the city, up to a thousand trees a night. This year, Emily and her coworkers hope to sell around 15,000 trees from Thanksgiving Day to 8pm on Christmas Eve, with the goal of having no more than a hundred trees left over.
Until then, the sights and smells of Christmas trees lining the sidewalk brighten her corner on the Upper East Side, like dozens of locations across New York City, and for a brief time become a part of the fabric of that neighborhood. Emily remembers a woman who told her once that the presence of the Christmas lights hanging overhead made her feel safer walking down the street at night. At her old location in Washington Heights, she enjoyed watching the neighborhood kids grow up as they came around each year. But most importantly, it’s about making the holiday period special for everyone that comes by her stand.
As the sun goes down and the temperatures drop, a family comes by looking for a tree. An excited boy shouts to his parents about a massive 10-foot Fraser fir. Emily trims the top and bottom to fit perfectly. The father hands over cash and picks up the massive tree to carry across the street to their home. It is the most picture-perfect tree sold that day.
“I want to help to make this experience special for them because that’s what the holiday season is all about.” — Emily Mullen