Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Christmas Trees and the Market Economy

Despite our big-box anonymity, purchases are ultimately made between people.
photo (1)

My family and I live in Christmas tree country—Ashe County, North Carolina. The trees decorate the sides of hills in neat, green lines before they are cut and shipped across the country. Trucks loaded with trees overtake the county’s roads every November and lights beam from barns and loading lots where the trees are stacked and sent off on semis.

The Christmas tree market is notoriously unstable. The price fluctuates wildly as smaller farms get into the market when the price is high, which eventually floods the market, driving the price lower—sometimes catastrophically lower. Trees take about six years to mature, and while the bigger farms manage these fluctuations well enough, smaller farms often struggle.

The market is currently down. We have a few trees, some of which were ready to sell this year, but the price is so low, I just gave them away to a friend who sold them to a local hardware store for next to nothing. He probably won’t even make enough to pay for the time and gas it took to transport them. Thankfully Christmas trees are not my livelihood.

Our family's Christmas tree patch
Our family’s Christmas tree patch

This made me think of those lines in Robert Frost’s famous poem “Christmas Trees” when a “stranger” offers to buy a thousand of the poet’s trees:

“A thousand Christmas trees! –at what apiece?”

He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.

The poet here has the luxury of keeping the trees instead of stripping the pasture. The tension in the poem is between commerce and beauty. “I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees,” he writes:

I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.

Farmers in Ashe County don’t always have the luxury of keeping the trees for their dignified beauty. While better off than many counties in the Appalachia, Ashe has its share of poverty and what would look like destitution to many Americans. It is not sell or starve, but it is sell or go without a new septic tank, a repaired roof, a mended this or that. And the land here is all rock and clay—great for Fraser Firs but not much else, except perhaps cows and tobacco.

The side of a hill after the trees have been cut
The side of a hill after the trees have been cut

A market economy in which we buy things from Big Box and online stores can obscure the fact that whatever we buy is produced by other people at a certain personal cost. When we look for “deals” at Christmas, I doubt many of us think about the labor another human being expended to make a certain object and whether the price we pay for it is a fair one. We think, rather, of big corporations and highly paid CEOs who can afford a dollar to two less and who have probably already calculated the discount into the cost of production.

I am not suggesting that we stop shopping for deals or that a market economy is a bad thing. I think market economies are wonderful and have brought about a great deal of good in the world. But an anonymous market economy can obscure the relational aspect of trade—it can obscure the fact that transactions are always, ultimately, between people. And when we look to buy objects for as little as possible without any consideration of the labor of others, we are acting no differently than CEOs who look to maximize profit, whatever the human expense.

Of course, what does it mean to “consider” the labor of others, especially in a world economy of complex objects created by parts from multiple corporations?

Frost touches on this problem indirectly in his poem. The Christmas tree buyer, who would pay the poet three cents a tree, would turn around and sell them for a dollar each in town—perhaps, even, to the poet’s own friends. He might as well give the trees away himself as a Christmas gift, he writes, if only he could fit them into his annual Christmas letter:

A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

In other words, one solution would be to bypass the middle man—the buyer from the city—and sell (or give) his trees away directly to his friends, which in the poet’s mind would justify the cost of the bare hill.

The problem is that this is not always practical. How will he get the trees to his friends? Drive them into town and deliver them himself? Or perhaps they will drive out to the country themselves? But at that point, why not just pay a dollar and save the time and expense of the drive? And so he imagines sending them a tree in the Christmas card.

As with all complex moral problems, there is no easy solution, but that does not free buyers from using money, to the extent that they are able, to nourish the relational element of trade rather than undermine it.