Amid the pandemic gloom, Christmas trees quickly rise in New Yorkers’ living rooms

A customer peruses the selection at one of Evergreen East Trees’ stands on the Upper West Side. Photo: Gabrielle Holliday

George Nash and Jane Waterman of Uptown Christmas Trees, the second-largest vendor in New York City, began preparing for this year’s holiday season in March. However, the duo placed a relatively conservative order for trees because city officials didn’t confirm until October that sellers could place their stands at concession businesses in public parks.

But so far, Uptown is selling twice the number of trees it did in the same period in 2019.

“This year we are terrified that we under-ordered. No one expected the incredible rush of demand that we are experiencing,” said Nash, who ordered around 14,000 trees after selling around 13,000 last year. “Everyone is worried that they might sell out before the last week.” 

Like Uptown, Christmas tree vendors across New York City have had to make alterations to their business models amid the pandemic. There have been fewer stands out this year versus in the past, with some companies skipping the season and others purchasing fewer trees because of the uncertainty of locations and demand. And those that are operating have to ensure safe housing for their staff and safe transactions for their customers. 

This comes at a time when more New Yorkers are trying to lift their spirits during a difficult year and bring the joy of Christmas into their homes. Vendors have seen increased interest in trees, as well as a slew of online orders, although they have kept tree prices relatively the same.

In a typical year, Uptown Christmas Trees would sell between 13,000 and 14,000 trees and employ 60 workers, many from Vermont. However, in 2020, things are different.

Uptown experienced a significant turnover of employees this year, all of whom were required to be tested prior to starting work. The vendor had to develop and submit protocols to the city as well as rent out more apartments to reduce the risk of infection among its staff. Uptown Christmas Tree stands are open 24/7, with each location having a day worker and a night worker.

Rather than having 12 people who man six locations sharing one apartment, there are now only four people for two locations. 

“I did not want all those people crammed into an apartment building. So we better do better this year because my overhead is outrageous,” said Waterman. 

Other vendors are seeing brisk online orders. NYC Trees and Tyler’s Trees are both owned and operated by Harold DeLucia, although most of his business is conducted through NYC Trees. Between this year and last year, the companies’ online sales have doubled, and they are now selling mainly on the web.

“Although [the week after Thanksgiving] is the busiest time of the season for us, the following week is also extremely chaotic as we find ourselves selling out of trees faster than ever,” said Harlem resident Michael Greene, who has been with NYC Trees for three seasons but has known DeLucia his whole life through rugby. 

New for this season, NYC Trees has created a tree tracker, allowing buyers to follow their Christmas tree delivery just like a DoorDash order. This allows customers to be ready for their delivery. 

“On many of our deliveries, we find the customer already waiting outside the building as our drivers give the tree a ‘fresh cut’,” said Greene. 

The virus also changed how the trees are delivered. NYC Trees had a large meeting covering the protocol for their workers this season. They will now unwrap and shake out the tree outside a residence, significantly reducing their time in customer’s homes. 

“We’ve prepared and planned for a long time now, so I’m glad that everything has been very effective and efficient,” said Greene. “Usually for us, we try and be in and out now. So literally almost three minutes max.” 

Catherine Peridis, a fashion stylist in New York, and her husband ordered their tree online to ensure that the stands did not sell out before they were able to get one. When their tree was delivered, all wore masks. 

“They set up the tree in the stand and out of the wrapping outside our apartment. This way, they could come in and out in only a few minutes,” said Peridis. 

The rush on trees comes at a time when people are trying to escape the gloom of this year by getting into the Christmas spirit early.

“That’s kind of the vibe is that it’s going to be an early season for most buyers,” said Darden Pitts, a city resident who landed his first tree-selling gig with Evergreen East Trees.

Tree sales are skyrocketing nationwide. Members of the American Association of Christmas Trees, which tracks data for both real and artificial trees, have reported a nearly   200% increase in sales so far this year as compared to last. 

“Studies have shown that decorating for the holidays is good for your mental health. Christmas trees, as the centerpiece of the holiday decorations, are still something people can enjoy and cherish”, said Jami Warner, the association’s executive director. “This year, as never before, it’s anything goes. So putting up the Christmas tree before Thanksgiving has become a 2020 ‘thing.’”

Sean Patrick Gallagher and his husband typically get their tree after Thanksgiving but saw that NYC Trees was open, so they bought it a week earlier than usual. 

“Getting it early and having [it] up before Thanksgiving definitely changed the mood of our home and filled it with more optimism,” said Gallagher.

The two of them have been looking forward to the holidays, after having a tough year. Gallagher lost several relatives, as well as his job at a national event staffing agency, and had to pivot back to being a chef.

“We’ve lost so much this year and are reminded this time of year to celebrate and appreciate what we do have,” said Gallagher. 

Tina Mangan, who runs the account @basicallysoho, also got her tree delivered early this year from NYC Trees. Mangan and her family typically travel internationally over the holidays, but due to COVID, have to remain home in SoHo.

“It was important to make our home extra cozy this year as we will be celebrating at home. It is also our daughter’s first Christmas, so it’s extra special to us,” said Mangan

Melissa Robinson-Brown, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York and New Jersey, has heard two common responses when it comes to people’s decorating habits: They are seeking the joy of the holidays to boost their mood and to alleviate their boredom. 

“2020 has weighed on the mental health of so many. Navigating the anxiety and depression that comes with these significant stressors can be challenging,” said Robinson-Brown. “Christmas not only brings joy, but also the hope of a new year — that perhaps 2021 will look better than this past year has.” 

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