Have Yourself a Million Little Christmases

Christmas will look a little different this year, but everyone is still jonesing for a tree all their own.

A girl wearing a mask stands between two rows of Christmas trees.
Caitlin Ochs / Reuters

Jimbo Livaditis has sold Christmas trees through wartime and peace, recessions and booms, disasters both local and national, and the rapid advancement of fake-tree technology. He has been in the business his whole life, spending his childhood Decembers running around the parking lot of his family’s Atlanta ice-cream shop, where his dad—the eponymous Big John of Big John’s Christmas Trees—had started selling trees in 1949 to offset slow winter sales of frozen treats. He went to work on the tree lots with his siblings as a teenager in the 1970s, and in 1987, he and his brother took over the company. In all those years, he has never seen people jonesing for Christmas trees the way they have this year. “I hate to overuse the word unprecedented,” Livaditis told me. “But it is exceptional.”

By last Wednesday, Big John’s had already closed five of its nine lots because the company was simply running out of trees. “We usually sell right up until December 22 or 23,” Livaditis said. “Shutting down any of our lots this early is something that will go down as an historic event in our 71 years of operation.” After selling what he described as a “surreal” number of trees on Black Friday, Livaditis put out feelers to friends in the industry everywhere from Northern California to South Florida, looking for more stock to truck in, to no avail. He kept hearing the same thing: Sellers in every corner of the country were going through Christmas trees almost as fast as they could get them off the truck.

There appears to be a run on Christmas trees. Over the past two weeks, the media have started to pick up on the apparent frenzy, but putting numbers to these observations is a little tricky because the industry is almost charmingly low on data. There are no flashy start-ups peddling Fraser firs via app—a Christmas miracle! Google Trends, which tracks what people search for over time, shows a higher and more sustained interest in real Christmas trees this year than any before it, but the large majority of the 25 million fresh trees bought annually are sold through small, local businesses such as Big John’s, making any understanding of how a season is going nationwide a mostly anecdotal one. Anecdotally, though, business is booming, even in an economically scarred country.

During the pandemic, Americans have emptied the shelves of all kinds of products. Flour, jigsaw puzzles, dumbbells, inflatable pools, ring lights, peel-and-stick tile, antacids—all have seen their inventories depleted as people think of new things that might help them feel better and pass the time. Now, as coronavirus cases tick up, federal aid bottoms out, and the country sorts out the aftermath of a contentious election, far more people than usual seem to have looked around their home and decided that, well, maybe a little bit of holiday cheer would feel nice, and it would also be something new to do. If they can’t have all the grander things they might need right now, then what they want is to decorate the hell out of a Christmas tree.

A rush on Christmas trees wasn’t a foregone conclusion. As with many of the pandemic’s hot commodities, it wasn’t clear what people might find compelling about this holiday season, and what they might dismiss as too much work, until they were already peppering tree merchants with preorders.

“We were just preparing for the worst, thinking we might not sell any trees, or we might get shut down” in tightening pandemic restrictions, Julian Tempesta, who runs Vermont Christmas Trees, told me. The company operates two tree lots in wealthy Brooklyn neighborhoods, where many residents have second homes. Without an opportunity to throw the lavish Christmas parties that typically motivate such buyers to get their trees early, Tempesta worried that this year might be a bust. “We were shooting for, like, 75 percent of our typical sales,” Tempesta said. If some of those residents did abscond to country homes, those who stayed in town have more than made up the difference; both his lots have sold out multiple times.

All season, that slowdown never came. In Atlanta, Livaditis’s customers started preordering trees in September, weeks earlier than they usually do, but that didn’t dent walk-up sales to his lots at all. Even his corporate clients, many of whose employees are working from home, still ordered trees for their offices, including a 30-footer for the lobby of Georgia-Pacific’s headquarters. “We’re at a pretty good pace of driving to the city, dropping off trees, coming home, cutting more, and driving to the city to drop off trees,” Galen Parke of Adam Parke Trees, Tempesta’s supplier in Vermont, told me. When I called him, he warned me that the signal might drop—he was in the truck, driving through rural New England once again, hoping the strong demand didn’t suddenly dry up. If anything, sellers usually have the opposite problem: Because Christmas trees take a decade or so to reach maturity, low planting rates during the Great Recession have constrained current supply. In a normal year, it’s still enough to meet demand, but little about this year is normal.

One reason trees are selling so fast this year is simple math. When a holiday usually centered on gathering becomes fragmented, it loses its economies of scale. People still want to celebrate the same way; they just have to do it in smaller, more numerous groups, each of which requires its own supplies. The looming run on Christmas trees was foretold by the apparent boom in Thanksgiving turkey sales. Urged to reduce the size of their gatherings and avoid travel, many Americans did just that, but many still had traditional Thanksgiving dinners—they just had more of them. A family that gathers 16 people for the holidays in a normal year might split that out into four celebrations of four people during the pandemic, which means up to four smaller turkeys instead of one big bird. Or, now, four trees instead of one big one that everyone travels to sit around together.

This month, I found myself planning exactly that sort of dispersed Christmas. I always fly home to Atlanta for the holidays, so I had never bought a tree, real or otherwise, until two Sundays ago, when I dragged my folding grocery cart several blocks to the store near my Brooklyn apartment, selected a nearly five-foot-tall fir, and wheeled it home, full of the type of pure-hearted Christmas joy I had not experienced since childhood. On the way out, huge sidewalk shelving racks meant to hold miniature and tabletop trees stood bare, their voids telling of all the little Christmas trees that had been spirited away to tiny apartments occupied by young transplants who usually head out of the city for the holiday. In the week and a half since I got my tree, I have traipsed miles around the city on foot, looking for things with which to adorn it—multicolored lights, a topper star covered in chunky gold glitter, an ornament that bears a striking resemblance to my Chihuahua in a red Christmas tutu, a tree skirt accented with jingle bells to prevent said Chihuahua from drinking the tree water.

And, like, sure: Why not Christmas trees? After nine months of pandemic purgatory, some of the Christmas enthusiasm is likely attributable to practical desires: People need something new and fun to do, and picking up and decorating a Christmas tree will give a family at least a day of wholesome entertainment with a joyful payoff. People want to “have something new and pleasant to think about, especially this year, after being at home with your family for so long, and everyone’s staring at each other,” Leigh Anne Livaditis, Jimbo’s wife and business partner, told me. “People want to decorate the house and change things up and have a new project. I think that’s why they came so early this year.”

But Christmas trees aren’t necessarily selling just because many Americans are cooped up at home all day. Their existence is emotional: satisfying tradition, marking time, standing as a symbol of familial love and goodwill. If you’re in the business long enough, Livaditis told me, you see that sales are affected more by emotional circumstances than by practical ones. Before this year, the biggest spike in sales he could remember was in 2001, when the country was also coming to terms with a singular national tragedy. Then, as now, people seemed to see Christmas as a time for both hope and remembrance. “It’s celebratory, but in a different way,” Livaditis told me. “It’s like celebrating somebody’s life when they pass.” Christmas is a rare time in which much of the country goes idle for a day or two, allowing most people to focus on what they hold dear. In a year of unrelenting stress and pain, a lot of people have grabbed the opportunity to pause—and the tree that symbolizes it—with both hands.

Livaditis told me that he felt lucky to be able to contribute to people’s Christmases every year, but especially this year. The early mad dash for trees has given a little bit of psychological relief to a lot of families and provided the physical centerpiece for millions of little pandemic Christmases. “I enjoy Christmas-tree season more than anything,” Livaditis said, “even though we’re the host of the party that we never really get to enjoy, per se, because we’re hosting.” This year, though, things look a little different. The day after he and I spoke, the company closed three of its remaining four lots because of dwindling inventory. On Monday, it announced that its final location, in the parking lot of the ice-cream shop, would close for the season this afternoon. For Livaditis’s family, the Christmas-tree rush has also provided a very rare blessing: an opportunity to have a real, restful holiday together, for the first time in a generation.