Raja, a resident of Bandarawela, paused mid-sentence, while speaking about the hardships he faces during Christmas season, to say: “Most people nowadays have forgotten the real essence of what Christmas is. The tree which used to illuminate houses during Christmas is now being replaced or slowly forgotten.”
Christmas is just around the corner. Yet again, time has arrived for families to come together to celebrate one of the most cherished festivals of the year. However, in the midst of the glory and joy that this festival brings, we thought we’d shed some light on an untold story.
As the month of December sets in, 15-20 men from areas of Bandarawela and Haputale begin preparations to transport the holiday spirit to communities in Colombo. Raja, a single father who works hard during the holidays to ensure a produce of perfect Christmas trees, mentions how he’s not purely selling trees, but also trading virtue and feelings of warmth, every season.
Family life and the feeling of Christmas
Raja is a brown-skinned, slim figured man with weathered hands and a frown line on his forehead, and wears a simple faded shirt and trouser designed to help in his line of work. Working primarily at a tea plantation, he finds excess land in-between tea growth to grow some cypress trees (Christmas trees) for the festive season. While speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, he helped bring us closer to what his life looks like from the inside.
“It’s just me and my son now, and we work together, supporting each other. But what people nowadays don’t see is that we are not just mere Christmas tree salesmen. Most take one look at us and think we do this only for ‘a quick buck’ when it’s hardly the case. This business of mine is about supporting my family and keeping my family close. Isn’t that itself a lot like Christmas? At the end of every December we make sacrifices others might not, for the sake of the family,” Raja shared.
When we asked Raja as to what he thinks about the festival of Christmas and if he celebrates it, Raja replied: “We are Buddhists. Therefore, we do not celebrate the festival. However, we respect the festival and help support our Christian friends who celebrate it. I wouldn’t have started this business if I didn’t believe in its purpose. It doesn’t matter if it’s selling trees or surviving the holiday season, the hardest part is making people happy. And I believe the trees that I sell spread happiness to the ones that seek it.”
In conversation with Raja’s son, Chamara, we took some time to ask him how he spends the month of December, to which he replied: “I help my father in the fields if I have time. I went with him to Colombo last year, and will do the same this year if possible. This business is what my father began, and I am still merely helping him. And we do it together regardless of whether we are in Colombo or in Bandarawela.”
A livelihood by Christmas trees
Christmas tree salesmen around the world agree that when a customer arrives to buy a Christmas tree, they aren’t only purchasing a tree; they also come seeking the experience of buying one. Each year, around 33-36 million Christmas trees are produced in America.
Raja is part of this experience offered to Christmas tree buyers in Colombo, so we continued our conversation with him, and delved deeper into the life of a Christmas tree salesman.
Q: Why did you get into this business?
Well, 35 years ago, I started the annual sale of Christmas trees based on some of my entrepreneurial aspirations. But now, it is what helps keep my family afloat during the holiday season. Also, the profits that I gain from the sales in December benefit my son’s education greatly – he is studying for his A/L exam next year.
Q: What is business like now?
Business remains constant. We have some constant buyers. But in some years we suffered minor losses in profits, where we have had to throw most of the trees away.
Q: How would you describe the trees to us?
They are called cypress trees. We grow and cut them when they are two years old. They grow to different heights, and that’s the basis on which we charge. We believe that it serves as a religious symbol for the Christian communities living in Sri Lanka.
Q: How do you take care of these trees on the trip? Do they need constant care?
No. They do not. However, we try to keep them away from sunlight to make sure they don’t dry up. And if they are looking dried up, we water the trees to keep the needles in the tree fresher and to prevent it from wilting.
Q: What is the general routine you follow to bring the trees to Colombo?
We cut down the selected trees and then load them into a truck/lorry. The time it takes to reach Colombo mainly depends on the weight of the trees that we are transporting. If we are transporting a bulk amount of trees, the trip usually takes 10 hours from Bandarawela to Colombo. If not, we reach Colombo in eight hours.
Q: Where do you stay when you arrive in Colombo?
We stay in tents, in groups, on the pavements where we sell the trees. It’s all we are able to afford and we find it to be more efficient.
Difficulties along the way
When asked whether they face many difficulties in this line of work, Raja let out a heavy sigh and replied: “We do something very diverse from normal fields of employment, and this leads us to face a lot of hardships along the way.”
“We initially started off near the Thunmulla Junction and then slowly graduated to the Havelock Road stretch. But due to problems with the authorities and district committees regarding permits and land ownership, we are now stationed near the Kirulapana children’s park. This is also only possible permitted we pay an amount of Rs. 37.50, per tree branch, to the District Committee. The trees we sell range from Rs. 500-8,000.
“Some days, the amount we pay district committees combined with the losses in profit we already face, due to plastic Christmas trees gaining more demand, we leave to go back home at a disadvantage. It’s not easy being in Colombo either. With no proper washrooms or food, we have a hard time surviving on the streets for that week. Some of us have families who come together for support. The lack of proper space worries everyone.”
Since Raja spoke to us about the effect of plastic trees on his business, we decided to inquire further.
“Well, we’ve not suffered a great loss due to the trees that are now being sold at supermarkets in Colombo. But the sales we’ve had for the last couple of years did seem to decrease ever since “the plastic trend” came to be. I personally think they remove the religious semblance that these Christmas trees provide to Christian families during festive times such as these. The dissoluble smell of the tree, and thereby the mere presence of nature during Christmas is missing.”
As we concluded our chat, Raja added: “We cut our trees two days in advance and come to Colombo during the end of the second week. Then, we will be near the Kirulapana children’s park from 17-25 December, along with my partners. If a Christmas tree is what lights up your festive season, we kindly request you to come find us during any day of the week and take home this element of festivity we bring to you.”
Raja – 0703 843 700
Chamara – 0758 121 027
By Pavani Jayasinghe