Life

The People Selling Expensive Christmas Trees This Year Have a Message

A scene report from the lots where you buy your living-room firs.

A tree, a pair of hands exchanging money, and a pair of hands holding an empty wallet.
Illustration by Rey Velasquez Sagcal

Almost everything is more expensive in 2022. That is true for the boneless chicken thighs at the grocery store, the well drinks at the neighborhood watering hole, and the regular unleaded in your Honda Accord. So I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised that the Christmas tree now towering in my New York living room—purchased, sicko-style, on the last day of November—set us back $110. But the bill was a rude awakening, nonetheless. It wasn’t always this bad, right? Alas, even Santa Claus isn’t getting much bang for his buck these days, and the rest of us are paying the price.

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“The price of fuel is a key driver of any agricultural operation, and that has been rather traumatic,” says Michael Karabin, the 75-year-old patriarch of Karabin Farms, a pasture in central Connecticut that has grown and sold spruces, pines, and firs in the Yuletide season for decades. “In the case of Christmas trees, if you’re bringing in pre-cut trees, which a lot of places do, just the cost of transferring them down from Canada, Vermont, or Maine has gone up substantially from a year ago. If you’re a tree farm like us, just the cost of running a tractor back and forth has gone up.”

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Karabin broke into the Christmas tree business in 1964. In those days, he could buy pines in bulk for about 50 cents a tree. “The margins aren’t what they were then. You turned around and sold it for five bucks and felt like a hero,” he laughs. Today, Karabin explains, the average wholesale costs of Christmas trees have jumped to about $100 per unit, which has juiced the customer costs at holiday lots nationwide. You can probably guess the primary causes. Yes, fuel is one obvious factor, but other Christmas tree retailers have noted that fertilizer has grown pricier (by almost 25 percent!)—same with overall labor costs. All of these factors combined means that Karabin’s hand was forced: he needed to increase the cost of his cut-your-own trees by five bucks.

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“We went from $70 to $75, and a lot of my colleagues went from $70 to $80,” he says. “We’re not the lowest and not the highest.”

I heard the same story over and over again as I biked around Brooklyn recently, visiting all of those tinseled, makeshift tree stands where seasonal employees, dressed in jolly costumes, inaugurate the season with freshly cut pines. One shop, along the bend of the East River, made me feel like I had secured a bargain with my $110 pine. A 6-foot Balsam (albeit with a stand included) was retailing for an eye-popping $149. Fraser firs clocked in at $159, and you could take home a mammoth, basketball-hoop-height Nordman for a gnarly $449. “A tree that was a hundred bucks last year is like, $140 now,” says one of the young men working the lot who—understandably!—asked to remain anonymous. “Inflation affects everyone’s day-to-day life. And it affects any labor industry, because you have to pay more to stay alive.”

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The Christmas tree industry, as I learned during my tour, is fairly unregulated, possibly resulting, in some cases, in labor exploitation. One woman we’ll call Sarah was hawking a row of pines alongside an abandoned construction site in south Brooklyn when I approached her. Sarah is a stringer for a large tree retailer, and like everyone else on the streets, she’s not privy to some of the boardroom decisions that have increased prices this year. (In fact, she doesn’t even know, she said, how much money she’s making for her work. Is it by commission? Hourly? That was a mystery to her.) But Sarah has gathered that some of the rise can be traced back to transportation across the Canadian border, which grew annoyingly bureaucratic during the now-concluded vaccine-passport era. However, as in a lot of other areas of life, inflation also provides great cover for unseemly characters to do some opportunistic gouging. “To some extent, our pricing is dependent on what the neighborhood can pay for trees,” allows Sarah. (Now you can understand why she wanted to be quoted anonymously.) “Definitely in Manhattan, they’re going to cost a bit more.”

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At this point in the reporting, it occurred to me that the people who sell Christmas trees may not always be the most scrupulous bosses in the world. The salesman at the lot along the East River tells me that the person he’s working for is a “good guy”—in that he supplies heating and shelter for his employees—which sounds like the bare minimum to me. But, this worker said, other tree sellers don’t provide any of those benefits, forcing their operatives on the ground to fabricate protection from the elements out of thin air. Who would’ve thought an innately seasonal industry relying on gig workers could embolden the dark heart of capital?

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Nobody is sure if, or when, the market will turn. Remember, these Christmas tree professionals reminded me, it takes anywhere from six to eight years for baby pines, firs, and spruces to be fully mature and primed for ornaments, which means there is a good chance that the tree in my living room was first put into the earth when John Boehner was still the speaker of the House. Karabin, for his part, has already purchased a swath of new seedlings, two years in advance, which will be ready for primetime during the surely apocalyptic Christmas of 2032. “It’s a product you put in the ground, and wait, and in the meantime fight off dry conditions and wet conditions. You never have a perfect growing season,” he says. Who knows? Maybe the future yields of Karabin Farms will coincide with an unprecedented economic boom—a utopian America overflowing with $70 trees again. It’s a fantasy worth holding on to, as we tighten our belts through December.

If not? Well, maybe it’s time to finally become one of those artificial tree families. Yes, yes, I know, I know. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

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