“I sold thousands of trees in here to hundreds of families, but I never picked out a tree with my own family.”
If the Christmas spirit truly involves peace on earth and goodwill to humankind, then Tree Man can help us all develop a little more empathy for the people who help make the holidays happy and the Christmas celebrations complete. This slice-of-life documentary follows one of the Christmas tree sellers from points north who spend their holiday season selling Christmas trees on the streets of New York City.
Every year, François leaves his wife and children in Québec for six weeks and lives out of his van, parked on the corner of 102nd St. and Broadway. He loathes the gut-wrenching separation from his family at a time of year when family is supposed to be the focal point of existence. Yet every fall he returns to the same corner. He deals with the loneliness by creating a kind of seasonal family with the guys who help him, year after year, sell the trees. The people who live in the neighborhood think of him as a friend. He has become an institution to the community and to the people he works with by maintaining cheerfulness in the face of a long slog of a job, and by acting as a father figure to two teenage boys who deliver trees for him.
The irony is that these Christmas tree sellers deliver so much happiness and wonder for so many kids and families while they are largely shut out of these sorts of celebrations in their own lives because of the job. They sell and deliver trees and set them up in beautiful and well-appointed apartments while working outdoors in all weather and with minimum comforts and conveniences for well over a month. One could expect that they would hate the job, and hate even more the people they sell the trees to, but they don’t. In fact, they enjoy interacting with the customers and trying to make the tree buying experience pleasurable and a fun part of the Christmas celebration. They bond together and form deep friendships even though they only see each other for this one part of the year.
The customers really appreciate them as people, and not just for the service they provide. One of the older ladies who lives in the neighborhood where François sells trees lets him shower in her bathroom whenever he wants. People who have moved away from the area come back to buy trees from the same stand because of their connection to François. For many of the people in the neighborhood, the family Christmas tradition includes picking a tree from their favorite seller.
A good documentary can make you take notice of something you were never aware of before. Most people don’t pay much attention to the workers who staff the ubiquitous Christmas tree lots which pop up all over at this time of year. In addition to calling attention to the people who make live Christmas trees available to city dwellers, Tree Man furnishes a few other surprises. For instance, not all of the tree men are men; a few women have established Christmas tree lots of their own despite the discomforts and hard labor attendant to the job. This gentle and unassuming film does a nice job of opening up this unseen element of the commercial Christmas juggernaut. It takes note of the consequences when a huge commercial retailer like Whole Foods decides to sell Christmas trees in competition with the long-established neighborhood lots.
The film never reveals how much money the tree people make nor asks if the financial benefits outweigh such a long, uncomfortable time spent away from home and family. These people help other people celebrate Christmas by sacrificing a lot of the joy of their own celebrations. François reunites with his family at almost 11 PM on Christmas day after driving for 17 hours. One of the tree men comments that a big commercial seller can’t provide the personal service the customers count on and enjoy at the street tree lots. These relationships that the sellers form with the buyers and with each other, at the expense of a comfortable Christmas at home with their own families, bring to life the whole idea that the Christmas season is about giving. It could seem that this tree business is just about providing a commodity, but Tree Man illustrates that it’s the people who make the holidays special, not the things you buy, not even the tree which forms the center of the whole celebration. In that way, this little documentary provides an offbeat and unexpected addition to more conventional holiday-themed movies which celebrate the spirit of Christmas.