Giving Christmas Trees & Being a Santa – Alex Gramling (POY 19)

Giving Christmas Trees & Being a Santa - Alex Gramling (POY 19)

Alex Gramling and his friends started giving away Christmas trees after a chance encounter with someone in need. Now he enjoys being a Santa for others.

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This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.

Monologue by Josh Morgan

This is The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people. I’m Josh Morgan.

I’m a sociologist and a writer, and I use this podcast to share stories from people who are making a difference in the lives of others, people like you and me. This is Episode 19, and you can read along with the transcript for this episode at pluralofyou.org/019.

Alex Gramling is a marketing executive from Newburyport, Massachusetts. He’s also the founder of Christmas Tree Santas, a nonprofit organization that distributes Christmas trees to families who otherwise might not be able to afford them. Alex got the idea after he gave a tree to a family in need a few years ago, and he and his acquaintances have since distributed thousands of trees in six states across the US. I talked with Alex recently about Christmas Tree Santas and about what the Christmas holiday means to him, and I’ll play our conversation in a moment.

In reading a little about the history and the sociology of Christmas for this episode, I’ve realized that Christmas is a surprisingly complex thing, not just symbolically but emotionally. I mean, think about it: if someone from outer space visited Earth on December 25th and asked you what was going on, and they were somehow fluent in English, how would you summarize the holiday without Googling it? There are all of these trinkets and foods and songs that have been absorbed into the holiday over time, and these customs differ from region to region. Then there are the social practices, people arguing about what the holiday even means anymore, and on and on. Even if you can summarize Christmas in one sentence, someone else is going to have a different perspective because their family had its own habits and expectations for the holiday.

I put a lot of thought into the meaning of a Christmas tree for this episode, and I had a tough time with it. I’ve set aside how Christmas is celebrated in other countries to focus on traditions in the United States, because that’s what I’m familiar with and because that’s what the Christmas Tree Santas organization specializes in. For many families in the U.S., Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a tree, and I’ve been wondering why that is. I ask Alex what Christmas trees mean to him, so you’ll hear his answer in a bit.

Here’s what I’ve settled on for myself. To me, a Christmas tree is sort of a physical stand-in for Christmases past, not so much because of how it’s decorated but its presence alone. I suppose the silhouette and the smell of a tree reminds me, if only subconsciously, of moments my family shared growing up, how some years we could afford to buy a tree and other years we’d have to cut one down on the side of a dirt road somewhere. I can’t see a tree now without thinking about my mom and how she barely pulled off Christmas some years, especially now that I’m aware of how demanding Christmas can be for parents. My wife and I don’t have kids of our own yet, so I don’t mind if we have a tree in our home or not, but it’s always comforting to see one up when I visit family for the holidays.

Like you’ll hear Alex say later, there’s a sense of normalcy about having a Christmas tree. For many families, it’s a symbol of security and commemoration. Some of you told me on Facebook and Twitter that, although family is ultimately more important to you, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a tree, and maybe that’s why. It’s an emotional token that we take pieces of with us as we go our separate ways, and then we bring those pieces back together at Christmas time.

Alex discovered a few years ago that, for families who are accustomed to having Christmas trees, not having them can be demoralizing. I’m speculating here, but having a tree at Christmas probably suggests to many families that their situations are okay. For some, not having a tree can indicate that something’s wrong, that not being able to afford something so basic means circumstances have reached a critical status. Along those lines, sociologist James H. Barnett writes about Christmas activities, “These activities are intended to banish anxiety, to enhance the present, and to secure the future.” Even though having a tree at Christmas may not seem like a big deal, I suspect this anxiety-reducing effect explains how it can serve as a social and psychological fixture, and that we can take something as simple as a Christmas tree for granted.

I’d never thought about families going without Christmas trees as a social problem before I learned about Christmas Tree Santas, but this goes beyond holiday decorations. Obviously, there are other needs that take precedence, like food and shelter, but there’s more to being human than simply surviving. It’s like Kevin Adler said in the previous episode of The Plural of You: “To reduce me to just a needy person in terms of physiological sense takes away from the complete person that I already am.” That’s why I’m glad Alex and Christmas Tree Santas are satisfying more than the temporary needs that members of their community have: they’re providing care, and they’re providing hope.

I’m so glad Alex made time to talk with me, and I hope you’ll check out his organization at christmastreesantas.org. Here’s Alex Gramling, the founder of Christmas Tree Santas.

Interview with Alex Gramling

JM: Hi, Alex.

AG: Hey, Josh. How are you?

JM: I’m great. How’s your day been?

AG: It’s been pretty awesome. We’re getting ready for our big giveaway. They start this weekend, so it starts to get a little busier this week and into the next couple of weeks.

JM: So tell me about Christmas Tree Santas. Would you mind sharing what the purpose is behind the project?

AG: You bet, Josh. Christmas Tree Santas has a simple mission: we’re all about spreading joy and hope during the holidays. We have a pretty unique channel and idea to do that: we give away Christmas trees to needy families, typically low income families. We also give them a few extras to brighten their holidays: a tree stand for their tree, some ornaments, and some Christmas decor.

We’ve been doing this for about five years now, and it’s grown every year. It’s a great joy and gives us a lot of satisfaction to help people in need during this time of year.

JM: I read on your website that you listed your first tree online about five years ago. Could you tell me the story about how that went?

AG: Yeah, exactly. This grew organically from a chance encounter. I had an artificial tree in my basement. Honestly, I was just trying to get rid of it and make sure that it didn’t go into a landfill. I put it on freecycle.org, which is a recycling site that a lot of people visit.

A couple of things happened. One, I was surprised at how many people wanted my Christmas tree. I got a lot of responses immediately. I chose one at random, and the woman who came to pick up the tree brought her young boys with her. She was emotional at receiving the tree and the boys were excited. It became clear immediately to me in the driveway, as I was making this exchange and handoff, that this was not just a family doing some recycling. This was a family that was going through some difficult times, needed a tree, and wanted a tree for their holiday celebration. That was an ah-ha moment for me.

I kind of understood at that point that the symbol of the season that so many of us take for granted is something that may be out of reach for families that are going through difficulties or have low or modest incomes. I immediately thought, ‘This is a challenge, and this is a problem I think I can solve.’ That year, we started to put the infrastructure in place to solve that problem and build a charity around it.

JM: Did you have experience doing anything like this before?

AG: I’d say no. [laughs] Giving away hundreds of Christmas trees annually? No, I had no experience whatsoever. I do come from a marketing background and a startup background, so I am fairly entrepreneurial. I knew how to start businesses, and I felt confident that we could figure out how to do this.

Running a charitable organization or knowing anything about Christmas trees, how they were delivered, and how we were going to get them to families? That was all pretty far afield. That was all new learning for me.

JM: That’s what I was wondering. How did your background, your career and such—how did that inform this project?

AG: Again, as I said, I think in a couple of ways. One, that sense of entrepreneurship that makes you think, ‘I can start this. I can do this, and we can figure out a way to solve this problem.’ That’s the seed that’s at the start of many businesses, either for-profit or nonprofit. That was certainly part of the motivation here.

I also come from a marketing background, so I have some sense of how to raise money, how to make an appeal, how to create and brand a product and a business. I think that’s been beneficial to me along the way. I haven’t been afraid to go out and work with partners, find supporters, and tell our story. At the end of the day, what connects so many people to us, whether they’re a client of ours or a supporter of ours, is the story and this idea of helping your neighbors around the holidays and showing people you care by giving them a Christmas tree.

JM: What scale did you have in mind when you started this? I know it started with just the one interaction with the mother and her sons. When you had this initial spark, did you see it inside your community? What was your vision?

AG: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think our goals were pretty modest.

Just to take you back a bit, after I had this idea, I reached out to my two business partners, one of whom perhaps fortuitously had worked on Christmas tree stands as a kid. His father sold Christmas trees every year during the winter. He had a little bit of background or knowledge just as a teenager of selling Christmas trees in his childhood home in New Jersey. They were both excited about the idea. We weren’t sure how this was going to come together or what we were going to do.

I think we had after our initial discussion some idea that we would try to launch this in the respective communities where we worked and lived. I’m in the greater Boston area, and my partners are down in Atlanta, Georgia. I think we had envisioned doing this in those two communties initially. We really didn’t have a sense of scale.

I think we thought initially we would be fortunate to raise a few hundred bucks and maybe give out fifty to a hundred trees in our first year. I think we had very modest plans and expectations initially, just to help our neighbors and help out in the communities where we lived. In fact, we did that the first year. We gave out 300 trees, about 150 or so in Atlanta and maybe 200 in the greater Boston area. We’ve gotten a little experience over the years, and it’s grown since then as more people have heard about the idea.

As we’ve been able to raise more money, I think our scale and our ambitions have grown just a bit, as well.

JM: I know you’re in six states. How have you coordinated with these different states? How did they come on board? You’re from Massachusetts, and I get the impression you’re originally from Georgia. I’m not sure how the other states factor in.

AG: Yeah, that’s right. Both of those things are true. I live here in greater Boston and am originally from Georgia. That connects me back to our Atlanta business partners and our roots.

Maybe it would help for me to explain a little about our model and how that works. That’ll help explain some of the growth and scalability of this. What we do is, in each community, we’ll try to find partner social service agencies who work on a day-to-day basis with low-income families in need. They have the best idea in their communities and in their client base of who would want a Christmas tree. That’s not something we would know. In my community, for example, I work with the Salvation Army, with some battered spousal shelters, some low-income charities. They identify families for us, tell them about this idea, and ask them if they want a Christmas tree.

We match demand to supply. We try to estimate how many trees we might need for a community in a given year. We’ll actually go and buy Christmas trees from a tree farmer. In this case, we’re using four separate tree farms, and they’re shipping trees down to a central location that we’ve chosen. Oftentimes, it’s a farm. Sometimes it’s a school.

We basically invite everyone on a single day for a couple of hours to come pick up their trees. We try to give them a large Christmas party. They’ll come and pick up a tree, they’ll pick up a tree stand and some ornaments. Santa Claus is often there. We’ll have some food and refreshments, maybe some entertainment, and just try to make this a family-fun experience wherever we do these tree giveaways.

That’s how it works. We’ve grown a little each year somewhat organically. We work down in Charlotte, North Carolina now. That’s because a Facebook friend of my wife had been reading about what we were doing, had gotten excited about it, and wanted to start her own version of this down in Charlotte.

JM: How nice.

AG: Yeah! We have a blueprint for how to do it now. We were able to set her up, find a tree farmer to supply her some trees, raise a little money. Now we do it down in Charlotte. One of my partner’s daughters goes to school in Athens, Georgia. She wanted to do something with her college friends around the holidays, so we do a giveaway in Athens, Georgia now. I met, just through an email correspondence, a woman in Detroit who is now organizing a giveaway for us in Detroit and one down in Houston, Texas, where she knows of another business that’s interested in this.

A lot of this is organic on a year-to-year basis, just depending on who has an interest in taking on the organization of it annually, who can raise a little money for us to help make sure that it stays funded. It’s been a great blessing to see it grow from just a couple of sites to seven or eight sites this year.

JM: That’s excellent.

How do you coordinate with everybody in the different chapters, or is everybody kind of autonomous?

AG: There’s a little bit of coordination and a lot of autonomy. [laughs]

JM: Okay, makes sense.

AG: Like I said, we have a blueprint. We know how to get trees acquired, how to get them distributed, best practices to keep everybody sane and happy, and [how to] make sure that people who need and want Christmas trees for Christmas can get them. We’ll work with an organizer as best we can to give them the playbook and to give them as much support as they need or want, and then let them take these events and make them their own. I’ll give you an example.

We’re going to be doing one down in Houston, Texas this year. We’re working with a local YMCA branch down there, who serves a lot of low-income families. We’re just walking them through, week by week, and helping them with some of the logistics, telling them when and how to receive their trees, giving them advice on how to give them and what to tell families when they receive their trees, helping them get some ornaments. We’re donating tree stands for their giveaway.

Beyond that guidance, they have a great deal of autonomy and are doing a lot of this themselves. They’re inviting the families, they are organizing all of the volunteers that it takes to pull of an event like this, they’re doing all of the setup. I’m quite excited to see how they do, and I’m sure they’ll have a lot of fun doing it.

JM: Sure sounds like it.

I’ve read a few times on the website that—there’s a lot of implication that Christmas trees are important because they carry a lot of meaning for different families. I was wondering if you could expand on—what does a Christmas tree mean to you? When you give a tree to a family, what does that mean to you?

AG: Yeah, absolutely. I think that initial, chance meeting with that single mom and her boys was a real epiphany for me.

As we’ve given these out repeatedly over the years—this year, we’ll give out our 3,500th tree—we’ve met a lot of folks over the years. There are a couple of themes. One is that this meets a legitimate financial need for folks, and helps mitigate and offset a significant cost. A live Christmas tree, in some communities, can run anywhere from $50 to $100, then you talk about lights, a Christmas tree stand, ornaments, and some of the extras. That’s just a large cost that a family who’s struggling and living from paycheck to paycheck, maybe they’re a single mom, maybe they’re a family that’s suffered through some unemployment, maybe there’s some disability or health issues in a family. To save them $75 or $100 so they can have a Christmas tree and enjoy their holiday is a real significant, financial gift and benefit for them.

The other thing they’ve told us is there’s a real emotional need and psychological need that a Christmas tree fills. A tree holds a special place in our culture around the holiday. It stands for life, joy, and hope. For some reason, that has a strong emotional resonance with a lot of people. For some moms and dads, it may hold memories of a simpler time or a time when their family was better off, maybe when they were a kid or maybe when they were younger.

For children, it means a great amount of joy and happiness to have this in the home. I think it also means an incredible sense of normalcy. So many families during the holidays, especially moms and dads, feel a great deal of stress and feel a great deal of guilt about the holidays. They feel like they’re unable to provide for their children, maybe like they see other families participating in the holiday season or just how they see the culture participating in Christmas and the holidays. They feel guilty if they can’t provide a tree or gifts.

For us to be able to give that to them gives them not only a sense of joy but a sense of hope, and a knowledge that their neighbors care about them, want them to succeed, and want them to be happy.

JM: Do you have any favorite stories of trees that you’ve given? I’m sure you have dozens of stories, if not more.

AG: Yeah, we really do. There’s too many to tell in a short interview.

In our first year, I think we were struck when someone walked almost two miles on foot with their teenage son to come and pick up a tree. That was profound for us, to understand that someone without transportation wanted a tree for their family so badly that they were willing to walk that far to our giveaway site and would walk back if they needed to, dragging a tree behind them. Of course, we intercepted them and gave them a [drive] home that year.

So many of the families we meet are dealing with disabilities, health challenges, or job loss. Oftentimes, they tell us that this gift or this outreach came at the perfect time for them, a time when they felt incredibly low and without hope.

I’ve heard from a mom who had just gotten so beaten down by job loss and day-to-day life that she felt hopeless. Someone told her about our tree giveaway. She showed up the first day and was first in line, and was able to give a Christmas to her children. She felt such great relief and felt like this was such a gift for her that it literally gave her a sustaining hope, and that’s powerful.

I met a woman last year in Newark, New Jersey. We were literally giving out our last trees on on the street. We had done a large-scale giveaway, and we just had a few left over. We walked out on the street and were just asking people if they wanted a Christmas tree. I met a mom with her young son who almost broke down in tears when we found her. She had just lost her job a couple of months earlier and had only recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Here was someone coming up on the street and handing her a Christmas tree, something she wasn’t thinking about or wishing for at the time.

There’s stories like that about, and everybody who comes to us has their own personal story or are dealing with their own issues. For a day or for the holiday season, or just for a moment, they can put all of that aside and tie a fresh-cut Christmas tree onto their car, take home some ornaments, and some Christmas cheer. That we’ve been able to be a part of that for so many families is, like I said earlier, a great blessing.

JM: Is there anything you’ve learned in doing this work that’s surprised you? Starting out, you didn’t necessarily have any experience doing this type of thing. Is there anything that you were surprised to learn?

AG: Suffice to say, the whole experience teaches in ways that are kind of hard to process. To see your neighbors in need experience hardship, experience great joy, gives you a fresh view into humanity, what it means to be human, and what it means to help other people.

I’ve seen this through my children’s eyes. Our family’s Christmas is different today than it was five years ago. Five years ago, I’d describe our Christmas as a typical, affluent, suburban Christmas, where our needs were paramount and primary. That’s flipped completely. Now our holiday season revolves around this activity and helping other people.

JM: I hadn’t considered that. Wow.

AG: It’s so much more fulfilling than our traditional Christmas of giving to one another, which—there’s nothing wrong with that, but helping others in this large-scale way has been, like I said, not only a gift for the families that we help but a great gift for me and all of our volunteers who are able to participate.

JM: There’s a conversation in our culture every year about the meaning of Christmas. Obviously there’s the story of the birth of Jesus. On a social level, what does the Christmas holiday mean to you?

AG: People will ask us if we are a religious organization or if there’s a specific tie to any Christian group. I guess I’d respond to that or answer that by pointing back to our mission. We purposefully keep that simple and straightforward. Our goal is to make people happy and to bring them hope. For many people in our society, that means enjoying the holiday season and having a Christmas tree. To that end, whether you’re Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, however you celebrate is not important to me.

All I want to know is that you need and want a Christmas tree, you can’t afford one, and that having one will make you feel better and give you great enjoyment during the holiday season. That’s a pretty low threshold to meet, and those are the families that we want to help every year. Like I said, it’s more of a spiritual mission and a helping mission than a statement about religion, I think.

JM: That was a great answer. That’s very admirable.

What keeps you busy the rest of the year when you’re not working on Christmas Tree Santas? Do you have any other projects you’re engaged in?

AG: On a charitable basis, there’s certainly volunteer activities in our community that myself and all of our board members are a part of and working toward.

The charitable organization, I should mention, is an all-volunteer, seasonal activity. This is not a full-time job for anyone, certainly not for me. It’s not a paid job for anyone, there’s no real infrastructure here. There’s no headquarters, paid staff, or capital expenses.

We’re all just volunteers who try to pull this together on an annual basis and brighten the holidays for people. It starts to get into full swing with some organizational steps early in the fall and picks up steam toward the holidays. Outside of that, we’re all just working stiffs. We all have our day jobs, so we try to squeeze this into the margins as the Christmas season approaches.

JM: What can listeners do to help others in their own areas have a happier holiday season, sort of like what you do with Christmas Tree Santas?

AG: I get asked that every once in a while. I think it’s a great thought.

I hear from so many people after they’ve read about, they’ve heard our story somehow. They reach out, they want to volunteer, and they want to help. I think that’s a near universal feeling when you hear about others who have needs: “What can I do? How can I help your organization, or how can I help in my community?” I think people are inspired when they hear our story.

What I say to people is just be a Santa in your daily life. You don’t have to start a large-scale organization, you don’t have to create a charity to brighten someone else’s day. It can be as simple as, here in the Northeast, shoveling your neighbor’s walk, or throwing a few dollars in the Salvation Army bucket. I think it’s just a mindset of giving back on a daily basis in small ways that can be meaningful for people.

I’m kind of reminded of The Christmas Carol, the story of Scrooge and how he turned around his life. He woke up one day and made a series of small changes, didn’t he? He gave away a turkey to his employee’s family. He threw a schilling or a farthing to a boy in the street. He was kinder to his neighbors.

These are the things that all of us can do in our daily lives, just to improve the lives of others. Those types of things are just as important, I think, as larger initiatives and gestures that tend to get more press and publicity.

JM: I like that.

Where can we follow Christmas Tree Santas online?

AG: I hope that you’ll visit our website. That’s www.christmastreesantas.org. We also have a large and kind of active Facebook community. That’s where we’re posting a lot of our news, updates, and a lot of our pictures showing all of our different sites and giveaways. That’s, of course, on Facebook at facebook.com/christmastreesantas. On Twitter, because of the character count limit, we’re actually @xmastreesantas.

You can follow us on social media, you can visit our website. Of course, there’s an email and contact form. If anyone ever wants to reach out to me or reach out to our organization, they can do so through the website.

JM: Sounds great. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?

AG: I don’t think so. I think I’d just wish everybody a happy holiday and, as I said, just try to be a Santa in your own community.

JM: Sounds good. That’s all I have.

AG: Thanks, Josh. I appreciate the good work you’re doing by telling other people’s stories. That’s a great mission.

JM: Yeah, thank you. I’m doing my best.

AG: Alright. Take care.

Conclusion by Josh Morgan

This episode of The Plural of You was produced by me, Josh Morgan, in cozy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.

You can find show notes, past episodes, and other resources at PluralofYou.org. You can keep in touch and get updates about people helping people on Facebook and Twitter at PluralofYou. Subscribing will boost this podcast’s rank and help others find it, too, so search for The Plural of You wherever you get your podcasts. If you’re listening through iTunes, please take a couple of minutes and leave a review. I’d really appreciate it.

In closing, here’s a homework assignment.

Think of a positive memory that involves someone you know. If that person celebrates Christmas, make or buy a Christmas tree ornament for them with the story in mind, then share that story when you give it to them. I’ve never done this myself, but I had the idea while working on this episode. I know if I had a tree full of ornaments like these, I’d certainly feel good about it, so I’m going to see about starting this for others in my own life. If you try it, too, let me know how it goes.

That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.