In a Hallmark Christmas movie, characters tend to find their perfect tree on a festively decorated farm where they chop it down themselves and celebrate with hot chocolate topped with extra marshmallows. Christmas tree shopping in New York City is a bit different, but no less wonderful—and no less necessary. For me it’s not Christmas without a real tree. That’s why it’s the first item on my Best Christmas Ever To-Do List.
I live in a neighborhood of Manhattan called the Upper West Side, which has been made famous by non-Hallmark movies like You’ve Got Mail. Its distinct features are proximity to Central Park and tree-lined streets of pre-war walk-up brownstone buildings. Within the east/west borders of Central Park and the Hudson River and the south/north borders of West 59th and West 110th Streets, tens of thousands of people make their homes—which, at Christmastime, translates into a tree stand almost every five blocks. The air becomes thick with the smell of Christmas, and I absolutely love it.
Uptown Trees on West 90th is my neighborhood go-to, where I’ve purchased my tree for the past 10 years. It’s a city corner outlined in multi-colored lights strung high overhead. Its footprint is further defined by rows and rows of freshly cut trees, with a new batch delivered each night. Colby from Vermont mans the corner during the day, and Hank covers the evening shift. Colby has a warm smile and has sold me my tree for the past two years. When I walk by the stand with groceries or other errands, he greets me by name. It’s one of the ways having a Christmas tree stand a block from my apartment allows me to enjoy some small-town familiarity within the big city.
This particular Uptown Trees stand hold a special place in my heart. A few Christmases ago, after setting up my perfect tree while Bing Crosby serenaded me in the background, I stepped back to take in my handiwork. Without warning, the tree suddenly tipped over. I darted forward but was unable to save it. My beautifully decorated tree was lying sideways on the floor.
At the sight of the mess, tears began to roll down my cheeks, but it wasn’t the tree I was mourning.
As I am sure is true for many of you, decorating the Christmas tree is a stroll down memory lane. Growing up, we decorated the tree as a family, and as we unwrapped each ornament and lovingly placed it on the tree, it was followed by the story that accompanied it:
“Oh look, here is the ornament mom and dad got on their first Christmas together after they got married.”
“This is the ornament I made in kindergarten.”
“Here is my first ornament from when I was a baby.”
This is how I remember decorating a tree, complete with hot chocolate and a fire roaring.
Having lost my parents young and moved many times, our family ornament collection dwindled, and most didn’t survive the many transitions. And now, those few I had left from childhood, lay cracked into pieces and strew across the floor. I couldn’t stop the tears. The mess I could clean, the memories I could not.
I was so angry at the tree and myself, I threw on my snow boots, stomped down my four flights of stairs, and marched back to the tree lot with the tree stand in hand. With tears in my eyes, I explained that I needed to return it. It didn’t work. I explained that I had just finished decorating the perfect tree and it had crashed, losing all my ornaments. I was done. I wanted to return the tree stand, head back to my apartment to clean up the monumental mess, and throw my tree out.
The young man, bundled up against the cold, looked at me with compassion and took a handmade wooden ornament off the makeshift wall. “Here,” he said to me. “This will help you get started again. Don’t give up.” I was overwhelmed by his kindness. As he began switching my tree stand to a bigger size so that the tree would not fall again, I thanked him profusely. He would not accept payment for the ornament and merely replied, “Merry Christmas.”
This year as I set up my tree, the wooden ornament is one of the first I put on. I may live in a big city, but that makes neighborly kindness all the more meaningful. For as long as I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I will always buy my tree from the little city tree stand on the corner of West 90th called Uptown Trees. And as long as I hang that ornament on my tree, I will be reminded of the kindness of strangers who can sometimes offer encouragement in the most surprising of ways.