How Capitalism Made the Christmas Tree Better

Originally intended as an antidote to commercialism, the Christmas tree soon had the opposite impact.


There's a Christmas tree war brewing in New York City this year. Not over what to call them—everyone agrees the proper name is Non-Denominational Winterfest Totem. What's at issue is who gets to sell them. According to the New York Post, "big-box stores are peddling evergreens at cut-rate prices" and thus undermining the business of "small-time tree sellers."

"Home Depot and Whole Foods—they have a lot of business. They need to understand that the Christmas tree business in the city is a little bit different than wholesale items from China," 26-year-old tree-seller Diana Marmolejo told the Post. Translation: Christmas is about more than moving units at the lowest possible price. It's about family. (Marmolejo's tree lot is "family-owned.") And family. (The tree she sells are from "mom-and-pop" farms located in North Carolina.) And, you know, family. Corporations may be people, but do you really want to buy your Christmas tree from one?

There's another wrinkle in the story—New York's fire code prohibits the indoor storage of Christmas trees for sale. In fact, New York retailers can't even display Christmas trees indoors. So presumably the corporate giants will either need to set up shop outside or abandon this facet of their businesses.

Keep your fingers crossed it's the former. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers could use the comforts of an old-fashioned Christmas. And as it turns out, entrepreneurs aggressively peddling trees in bulk is about as old-fashioned as you can get.

In his 1996 book The Battle for Christmas, historian Stephen Nissenbaum, writes that Christmas trees "first became widely known in the United States during the mid-1830s." But while German immigrants are generally credited with introducing the custom here, Nissenbaum explains that widespread knowledge of old Tannenbaum came not through first-hand experience but rather through literary channels. According to Nissenbaum, progressive reformists, largely upper class, Unitarian, and based in New England, saw in the German tradition of the Christmas tree a means of counteracting the "crass materialism" and general sense of unrestrained indulgence that had already begun to characterize the way Americans were celebrating Christmas.

The reformists wrote stories featuring Christmas trees—sometimes true accounts, sometimes fictional—and in these stories the Christmas tree minimized or mitigated the holiday's crass materialism in a number of ways. First, it confined gift exchange to a specific place and a specific time. Second, it used ritual—and authentic immigrant folk ritual at that—to shift emphasis from the gifts themselves to the act of gift-giving. Finally, it demanded obedience and patience from  children, who weren't allowed to see the tree or their gifts until a designated time.

While popular stories like "The Christmas Tree" helped spread the idea of Christmas, Christmas trees themselves did not immediately become a widespread phenomenon, especially in cities like New York. Apparently the residents of Manhattan and Brooklyn in the mid-19th century were not quite as self-sufficient as today's DIY urbanites—there were no rooftop farms in Williamsburg growing organic heirloom balsam firs.

Getting a tree was manual labor. Back then, city-slickers preferred shopping. This, at least, is what Catskills farmer Mark Carr discovered in 1851, when, in a last-ditch effort to raise funds for his next year's crop after a poor harvest, he decided to chop down some of the trees that were growing on his property and try to sell them in New York. A New York Times account published in 1880 reports that Carr paid a "silver dollar for the use of a strip of sidewalk on the corner of Greenwich and Vesey streets." A more recent article, published by writer Ed Mues in 2007, adds that Carr sold three dozen trees for what one newspaper at the time described as "exorbitant prices."

Other entrepreneurs followed in his wake. According to an 1900 article in the New York Times, a "party of sportsmen" returning by yacht from an excursion in Newfoundland in 1892 made a stop at Maine, where one of them decided to purchase 500 balsam firs and sell them in Boston, transforming what had previously been "looked upon as a nuisance" into a new cash crop. In 1896, the Times reported, a half dozen men from Maine formed "a syndicate with a capital of $25,000," bought up the stock of trees at prices higher than the traditional New York dealers were accustomed to paying, then set up shop in an unregulated area of the city near the public docks that allowed them to start selling trees on December 1st. In contrast, a Mayoral decree meant the traditional sellers could not start selling their trees until December 19th. "These men come to New York only once a year; they have no heavy rents to pay, they hire the space they want for, perhaps, $50, and have their goods out for nearly three weeks before we do," one of the traditional sellers complained.

But of course the citizens of New York benefited from their efforts: They had more time to buy trees, and more trees to choose from. A 1902 issue of Country Life magazine puts the annual trade in New York City at around 400,000 trees. Seven years later, the Times reported  that approximately one out of every four families had a tree in the U.S., and that the trade was especially strong in New York City and New England, which accounted for approximately two million out of the five million trees that were sold that year.

While the Christmas tree had been introduced as a means to dampen the holiday's commercialism, it instead did the opposite. It gave retailers a new item to sell, and that item in turn prompted additional spending. Once you had a tree, you need ornaments and, of course, a vast array of presents. Once you were decorating inside, why not outside too? The tree helped furnish the holiday, and the increasing number of furnishings associated with Christmas gave people more and more ways to make Christmas a larger and more significant part of their lives.

And the tree would not have caught on it as it did had it not been for the efforts of entrepreneurs determined to increase its availability and affordability. However "exorbitant" Mark Carr's prices were, buying a tree from him must have been cheaper than going to the Catskills to get one. The next year he brought more and sold out again. Once a family affair limited to a relatively small number of practitioners, the ritual of the Christmas tree had been conveniently commercialized and was on its way to becoming a beloved mainstream tradition.