Originally published December 2007:
After every Christmas, we wake to find the trees have vanished. The Quebecois who brought them have left us after a whole month of filling our streets with impromptu forests and the sweet, sticky fragrance of pine. And, every year, I miss them when they go.
“People in New York have a romantic idea about us,” one tree lady told me. “They come by and say, ‘Oh, you must feel right at home with all these trees, like in a forest.’ Then I tell them I live in Montreal. A big city. They look disappointed.”
That romantic idea might come from French-Canadian folklore, where the coureur-de-bois (literally “runner of the woods”) stands as a vivid heroic figure, a carefree adventurer decked out in fringed buckskin and moccasins, trekking and trading across the great northern wilderness. History tells us that the coureur-de-bois have disappeared and yet, every year, truckloads of their descendants head for New York, bringing a little bit of the Canadian wilderness with them.
Many of us go out of our way just to walk past their trees, to press our faces into the boughs and breathe deep. We can’t resist. “New York people like to smell the trees,” the tree lady told me. “They stop and tell me ‘Thank you for being here.’”
People give the tree lady cups of coffee, magazines to read, even the keys to their apartments so she can have a hot shower once in a while (she's out in the cold 16 hours a day and sleeps in a van). But not everyone loves the tree lady. Some people let their dogs urinate on her trees, and some call her a tree killer. She doesn’t get that.
“The tree is grown in a farm, like the food we eat, like potatoes. If I eat the potato, are you going to say, ‘Hey, potato killer’?"
The tree lady explained, "The tree is like flowers. It’s a simple way to make happiness, to bring some warmness in the house. Plus, it’s good energy. Feng Shui recommends to have real vegetables in the house. Like flowers. It’s better to buy a tree than to say ‘Oh, I feel sad, I want to buy a sweater or I want to buy shoes.’ We’re consumers, yes, but I think this is a good part of the consummation about Christmas. The tree is something everyone can share.”