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.


NEXT: EU to Charge Samsung with Antitrust Violations

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. And the tree would not have caught on it as it did…

    …had it not been for rapacious capitalists injecting pagan symbology into a Christian spiritual tradition, happily plundering nature and converting it into filthy lucre, and in the process burning hundreds of innocent consumers homes down to the ground due to faulty wiring and cheap, chinese made baubles intended to convince the exploited proletariat that access to wealth may be possible for him too, someday.

    In a decent, organized society government would regulate such wanton excesses, and provide every home with a fireproof picture of our Dear Leader, below which people could present their gifts to show their appreciation for his beneficence.

  2. Capitalism sure didn’t help the lack of alt-text, which should be considered a crime against humanity in this case.

    1. Nancy = “THIS is what *I* want for Christmas!”

  3. Remember to kill a tree for baby Jesus!

    … Hobbit

  4. Question to “libertarians?” Is the libertarian position on crime to give the maximum leaniancy to these property violators? That’s waht I got from this article:…..ians-becau

    1. whoa, you own a country?

      1. The Queen does.

        1. well they can tell that shit to the vikings, who bloody well immigrated themselves into british genes. if england had no immigration, theyd be a gang of toothless welsh.

          1. That is simply not true. The viking contribution to the English gene pool was minuscule. The Anglo-Saxon contribution was also small, at about 20%, most of the “English” people are descend from people who have lived there since about 20,000 BC.

            1. Still would be a bunch of dirty mongrels based on the one-drop rule.

              1. What does that have to do with it? Besides, the immigration restriction isn’t directed toward Scandinavian or German people.

                1. well its not like they were choosy. or should have been. all we can point out is that immigration didnt exactly undi

                  1. shit

                    ‘undermine’ anyone’s society in the past

            2. “most of the “English” people are descend from people who have lived there since about 20,000 BC.”

              yes, but you and yours are all beneficiaries of the wonderful consequences of getting raped by your betters. you should be nothing but a cheerleader for intermingling. tiger woods owns you.

              1. Would you rather live in a bachelorhood of Swedish-decedents, or blacks?

  5. There are several major truths that libertarians ignore when talking about immigration policy. Firstly, the vast majority of people’s income is spent on necessities (as least we like to think of them as that) that are produced not by man but by nature. Food, land, gasoline, electricity, produced from coal or natural gas, iron, copper, ect, ect. Libertarians think that all the wealth of society is “produced” by “producers,” when, in reality, most is exploited from the planet. This exploitation creates a great amount of environmental problems. Wheat is not “built” by anyone. It is dependent on land, of which there is limited supply, as even the craziest libertarian must admit, and oil to create the fertilizer required for it, as well as iron, copper, and other materials for the machinery. This does not mean that innovation cannot happen. Indeed to produce wheat has required great strides in agriculture, developed by innovators. Innovators allow us to exploit more resources from the planet. However, the majority of people are not innovators, and the vast majority of NAM immigrants, and NAM natives, are not. A true discussion of innovation will require the use of the ‘I’ word. (continued in comment)

    1. The goal of innovation, of course, should be sustainability, requiring both population and consumption and production to be static, and have the impact on the enshrinement to be as little as possible. So far, though, the goal has been to trend toward massive demand through the importation of more parasites from the third world, more environmental destruction, which is ultimately unsustainable. If we continue upon our current path we will have a billion people, massive deserts, oceans to acidic to support life, high prices for food, land , and oil, and probably a socialist revolution, as people won’t be apt to tolerate a white minority living in luxury while the black and brown masses suffer.

      1. you are excellent at debating yourself and a handful of straw men. you should contribute to this excellent jounal here

        he asks tough questions and posts replies on youtube

      2. NAM, NAm, Nam. all you ever talk about is the nams? What did they ever do to you?

    2. “Firstly, the vast majority of people’s income is spent on necessities (as least we like to think of them as that) that are produced not by man but by nature. Food, land, gasoline, electricity, produced from coal or natural gas, iron, copper, ect, ect.”

      Wow, I wasn’t aware that all of those things were created ready-to-use, bundled and magically transported to my door by the sheer benevolence of the Earth Goddess.
      Learn something new everyday.

      1. Out of curiousity, maybe you can further enlighten us all and provide an example of something that is created entirely of materials that AREN’T created by the natural universe.

        1. I’m not going to argue with Reducto ad absurdum arguments.

          1. no, just keep making them

        2. Out of curiousity, maybe you can further enlighten us all and provide an example of something that is created entirely of materials that AREN’T created by the natural universe.

          Religions. All of em.

      2. You didn’t build that.

  6. The only thing that would make Christmas decorations better is if they disappeared altogether.

    1. youre no fucking fun. first you take baby jesus out of the equation, then the pagan burning tree, and now you wqnt to take the elves and flying caribou out? what do you have left? a couple of grumpy athiests and some eggnog? bing crosby has a sad. i for one believe christmas should get weirder. i tell kids its a ceremony to please our alien overlords.

  7. Wow, is Mr T jsut cool like that or what? Wow.

    1. ^^I’m beginning to think that this web crawler shows a certain lucidity that might even suggest the barest intimation of self-awareness. Wow.

      1. computers are developing taste

  8. That picture raises more questions than it answers

    1. Is that Nancy Reagan?

      1. I believe it is.

    2. That’s Mr T and Nancy R.

  9. Hey Nancy, wanna go out to the van and get high?

  10. I actually went to a non-profit organization to select and cut down a tree myself. It was a major pain in the ass that took too long. Back to Builder’s Square, Handy Andy, Montgomery Ward, or wherever it is I usually buy trees next year.

  11. My mom’s family would actually put candles on the tree.

    They were extinguished quickly of course.

  12. Christmas is coming, hope there are snow in my hometown

  13. On my kind of Christmas, we would celebrate producerism; we would gather around the tree and talk about our work and investments.

    Hell I’d rather be on a reverse circulation drill rig on the Tombstone caldera, drilling out a deep copper porphry, on Christmas day.

    As it stands, I’ll get buzzed with my girl and bone her into another dimension.

  14. …”the proper name is Non-Denominational Winterfest Totem.”

    Greg, a wordsmith like you can make it scan as an acronym. NDWT ain’t gonna do it.

  15. Merry Christmas,NBA 2012

  16. I like making christmas tree

  17. I like making christmas tree very much, and christmas is so good.

  18. Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world

  19. Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.