By Greg Clark, December 21, 1946
“How,” demanded Jimmie Frise,”is your Christmas spirit?”
“As good as the next fellow’s,” I replied guardedly.
“I mean,” expanded Jim,” “have you got the true spirit of Christmas? Or are you just one of those people who go along on the Christmas bandwagon because they can’t escape?”
“Jim!” I expostulated very shocked. “You shouldn’t say things like that. To vast numbers of people, Christmas is the most holy day of the year.”
“It certainly doesn’t look like it,” declared Jim. “It’s far from holy for what looks to me like about 99 per cent of the population. It’s the business peak of the year. More cash registers clang during the four weeks before Christmas than during any other four-month period of the year. More people are exhausted as the result of sheer acquisitiveness on Christmas Eve than on any other day of the year.”
“I know, I know,” I protested. “Anybody can see that we have made a carnival out of Christmas instead of a holiday. Holiday means holy day. But how else would you celebrate Christmas?”
“Well, millions among us DO regard Christmas as the most sacred day of the year, and act accordingly,” said Jimmie. “But millions more of us can’t hear the church bells because of the racket the kids are making in the living-room or because of the hustle and bustle in the kitchen while the turkey cooks….”
“I think,” I submitted, “that the great majority of those of us who look upon Christmas as a carnival rather than a holy day still have a consciousness deep in our hearts as to what it is all about. All this giving of gifts. All this gathering of the family all this feasting and merrymaking.”
“I doubt it,” muttered Jim.
“Look here,” I demanded, “what are you getting at? What is all this leading up to?”
“Well,” said Jim, in that sweet humble air he adopts when he is about to take us both for a ride, “as a matter of fact, I was just wondering if the good old Christmas spirit had affected you to the point that you might be willing to make a small sacrifice…”
“Of time?” I queried. “Or money?”
“Neither, really.” Assured Jim. “One of my nephews from the country – just a kid, he is – got the bright idea this Christmas of making a little money by selling Christmas trees off the farm. They’ve got a big swamp full of spruce and balsam, you remember?”
“That’s a good swamp,” I agreed. “Full of rabbits.”
“So,” went on Jim, “he came up to the city and rented a vacant lot, he and a couple of chums. And they’ve cut about 300 dandy little Christmas trees, and have brought them up by truck to this vacant lot. And these past three days, they’ve been selling like hot cakes.”
“Good for them,” I applauded. “I like to see the farm boys exhibiting a little initiative.”
“A Swell Idea!”
“Now here’s the point,” pursued Jim. “They had no idea business would be so brisk. So they want to go back down to the farm tonight and spend tomorrow cutting another couple of hundred Christmas trees. And my nephew asked me if I would be kind enough to stand guard at their vacant lot tomorrow.”
“Why, Jim,” I admired, “what a swell idea!”
“All we’d have to do,” hurried Jim, watching me narrowly, “would be to get on the job good and early and…”
“How early?” I cut in.
“Oh, 8 or 8.30,” supposed Jim. “Maybe even later. Nobody goes out buying Christmas trees first thing in the morning.”
“How about during the night?” I demanded. “Don’t they have to leave somebody on guard during the night? Isn’t there some danger of kids coming around during the night and snitching a few trees?”
“Aw, we could stroll around a couple of times before bed time,” said Jim. “And anyway, there will be a cop on the beat.”
“Jim,” I submitted warmly, “there is something about Christmas trees that appeals to everybody no matter how cold-hearted he may be. I never pass one of those vacant lots crammed with little spruces and balsams, brightening the drab streets of the city with their unexpected little forests, that I don’t slow down and envy the guys who are living there, even for a few hours or a few days, amid the charm and mystery of the woods, there in the heart of the city.”
“It’s the Christmas spirit,” enthused Jim, obviously relieved at my reception of his idea.
“Has your nephew got one of those little shacks on the vacant lot?” I inquired. “You know, a little shelter to…”
“Not yet,” explained Jim. “They’ve got a good big brazier we can sit at. It won’t be cold. They’re going to bring planks for a little shack when they come back with more trees tomorrow night.”
“Aw, well, it’s just for the one day,” I reasoned. “Jim, I think it’s a sweet idea. I’ll be very glad to help out your young nephew. Is it the one we met last winter, rabbit hunting?”
“The same boy,” assured Jim.
“A fine kid,” I said heartily. “I’m glad to see he’s got some get-up-and-go to him. When do they leave for the farm?”
“They’ve left already,” announced Jim. “I just got a telephone call to say they were leaving and asking if we could go out right away.”
“Jim,” I cried, “let’s go!”
On the Job
Personally, I have always envied shopkeepers, especially hardware store keepers and drug store keepers. Those are happy men. There they stand amid their mysterious treasure all heaped about them. Mysterious drawers, secret bins; and all about them piled up and heaped high, the riches of their merchandise. I pity all those who have to stand behind counters and dish out groceries and drygoods. Everything they’ve got is out in the open. The customer can see for himself. But in a hardware store or a drug store, there is a sense of the unknown, the hidden. Every request from a customer is a challenge. And you can see in the eye of the hardware man, for instance, that gleam as his mind darts across the past, his memory exploring, as he accepts the challenge and goes to work to find the thing requested. I am sorry no hardware man or druggist has ever encountered an emergency that required my assistance. Christmas trees, of course, come in the category of groceries or drygoods.
Jimmie and I drove hotly for the residential shopping street where young Lisha, his nephew, had rented the vacant lot. And when we parked in front of it, our hearts rose.
There was still a goodly supply of Christmas trees on hand, though you could see that a large number had been sold. Already half a dozen customers were standing or moving amid the trees, examining them and looking about impatiently for somebody to serve them. In the midst stood a good big brazier newly heaped with coke and sticks, and radiating heat waves on the frosty air.
We hurried to the job.
Each tree had a small price tag tied to it. Some were a mere 75 cents, most of them a dollar, with here and there a particularly choice specimen at $1.50. After a hasty look around, I realized that Jim’s nephew, young Lisha, had inherited some of the artistic sense his uncle had. The $1.50 trees were pure Christmas card types.
“Madame?” I greeted the first lady, who had a couple of kids with her.
“How much is this tree?” she inquired sharply.
I examined the tag, which was in full view. “That’s $1.50,” I informed her.
“A dollar fifty,” she cried shrilly, “for a little old tree? Why, that’s an outrage. Anybody could go and out down a simple little tree.”
“But look, lady,” I explained sweetly, in the best merchandising tradition, it had to be cut. It had to be brought in a truck from the country. This vacant lot had to be rented…”
“Oh,” she said. “So you want to argue, do you? Well, there’s lots of other Christmas trees around this district…”
And she marched out of the lot, her two kids glaring back at me indignantly.
I saw the two ladies Jim had first approached just leaving him with their shoulders squared.
The next lady I approached had a tree in her possession. She was dragging it out toward the brazier with the air of someone who had found a bargain hidden away at the back.
“This one,” she stated firmly, “has no price tag. How much is it?”
I examined the tree. It was a little beauty. A close-packed, dense spruce, its branches standing out briskly in all directions, its top tapered and gay and light is a feather. Obviously a $1.50 type.
“That’s the $1.50 line, lady,” I announced.
“For a little bit of scrub like that!” she snapped. “Scrub that you could pick up along the roadside…”
“Sorry, madam,” I assured her. That’s a very exceptional Christmas tree…”
“It was a way in at the back, there,” she wheedled. “Among the 50-cent ones.”
I went back in among the trees. I looked on the ground. Sure enough, I found it. A price tag, folded up as though some bargain hunting woman had pinched it off the tree. I opened it. It was $1.50.
But maybe the wind blew it off. I shouldn’t be so suspicious.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I stood firm, “that’s our $1.50 line.”
“It’s an outrage,” she shrilled. “The government ought to forbid this racket. “It’s just a racket. A little bit of scrub like this, a dollar fifty!”
I said nothing. I looked over and saw Jim standing by the brazier warming his hands. His customers had departed.
“Look,” said the lady, changing her attitude.” Couldn’t you let me have this for a dollar? I’m just a poor widow. And my little children do so look forward to a Christmas tree…”
“Just the Salesman”
She didn’t look like a widow to me. She looked like a woman regularly accustomed to bulldozing and wheedling a man by turns.
“I’m just the salesman, lady,” I stated. “The price is a dollar fifty.”
“Do you deliver for that price?” she asked stiffly.
“No, ma’am,” I said. “F.O.B.”
“What does F.O.B. mean?” she snapped.
“It’s French for ‘you got to carry it,'” I explained.
“You keep it,” she said warningly, searching her purse. “My husband will call for it. after supper.”
She paid me the $1.50 and I wrote her name on a piece of paper and tied it prominently to the fine feathery tip of the tree.
Jim had dragged a box up to the brazier and was hunched over the fire.
“It’s a cold job, just standing around,” he sniffled.
“Make any sales?” I inquired.
“No, mine were all just shopping around,” he coughed.
The late afternoon sun had gone down behind the nearby buildings. The December wind eddied around us, wafting the scent of balsam and spruce and the fumes of the homegoing traffic to our crispy nostrils.
A few people paused in passing and looked in at our display, but thought better of it and hurried homeward.
“How late should we stay?” I inquired, from the lee side of the brazier.
“Well, I suppose,” huffed Jim, “we ought to stay until the stores close and the crowds go home.”
A man and wife turned purposefully into our lot, the lady leading.
As I was on my feet, I leaped to the sale.
“Aha, the old racket,” cried the husband jovially, full of the Santa Claus spirit. “How much are the trees? Thirty-five, fifty?”
“Are these all you’ve got?” asked the lady in a quiet, menacing voice.
“Just what you see,” I assured her politely.
“They look awfully skimpy to me,” she said, leaning back. “When I was a girl, Christmas trees were beautiful.”
“We have several varieties,” I explained, “spruce, balsam, but the spruce are the prettiest.”
She walked stiffly around. Her husband joined Jim at the brazier and they engaged in the hearty kind of conversation a city man uses on what he assumes to be a country man.
“This one,” I said, pulling a nice bunchy spruce out of the pile,” is the $1.50 line. These are special…”
“A dollar fifty!” laughed the lady lightly. “I should say it IS special! That’s nonsense. I wouldn’t pay more than 50 cents for any Christmas tree. Why it’s absurd, a dollar fifty … George!”
A Cold World
Her husband came over smartly.
“This man,” she said, “has the nerve to ask a dollar fifty for this Christmas tree. Speak to him.”
George drew himself up and frowned at me.
“A dollar fifty,” he began slowly and loudly.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t own the trees. I am just a salesman. There are plenty more Christmas trees up the street.”
“Tell him who you are, George!” commanded the lady in a low voice.
“I don’t care who you are,” I said loudly. “The price of this tree is a dollar-fifty.”
“That’s the tree I want,” said the lady loudly too. “Give him 50 cents for it, George, and take it.”
George looked critically at the tree.
“Mabel,” he said, “that isn’t a Christmas tree. That’s just a piece of hedge. I want a Christmas tree that sort of…”
“We’ve been over and over that,” cried the lady angrily, “every Christmas for years.”
“I want a Christmas tree,” shouted George, “that you can see through. I want a filmy, sketchy Christmas tree, not one of these thick, stuffed looking…”
“Take this one!” warned the lady in a deep throaty voice.
George looked desperately around and laid hold of one of our 50-cent line, a poor little wispy, droopy balsam.
That’s a Christmas tree!” he grated, shoving his jaw close to his wife’s face. “That’s what WE had for a Christmas tree in MY home…”
The lady grabbed a branch and tried to snatch the tree from him.
They pulled and yanked and yelled at each other.
The lady suddenly let go and ran, stumbling out of the lot, and with fast-tapping feet turned into the home-going crowd along the street.
“Will you take it, sir?” I inquired politely.
He stood for a moment, then flung the little tree away from him.
“Aw, the heck with it!” he barked and strode out.
Jim hadn’t moved from the brazier.
“Jim,” I said, “how long should we stay here?”
“It’s pretty cold,” suggested Jim.
“It’s a cold world,” I agreed.
So we banked ashes on the brazier and put it in a safe place and went home, trusting to the goodness of heart and the Christmas spirit in everybody not to molest young Lisha’s trees.
And after supper, we went and bribed the old boy who cuts our grass in summer to take on the job for the morrow.
Editor’s Notes: $1.50 in 1946 is about $21.25 in 2019.
F.O.B. is a term that basically means that the seller is not responsible for shipping.