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Why I hate Christmas on Jane Street: Channeling my inner Scrooge

BY KATHRYN ADISMAN | In 2010, when I announced on Facebook that I planned to pen a diatribe against those nice Christmas tree folks, I got 0 likes. One comment from my friend Pat Smith: “You’ll be Crazy Scrooge Lady.”

Undaunted, I stopped in Caravansary on Greenwich Avenue, relishing the irony of expressing my heresies in a Christmas specialty shop. Shop owner Bill Johnstone did not mince words: “DON’T DO IT! These people are so beloved they’re practically the mascots of Jane Street.”

The Romp family was a sacred neighborhood institution.

“Romp!” Pat cried. “The name alone is stuffed with cute. Go after them. Speak out as the lonely voice of beleaguered ill will in this time of strictly enforced good cheer. Don’t play devil’s advocate, be Satan herself!”

Here goes “Diary of a Mad West Villager”… .


November 2010:

Every Thanksgiving, they drop — from the heavens — and land on my street, where for a month they plant themselves, a whiff of Vermont, spreading holiday cheer and selling Christmas trees.

I dread the signs of their advent: The wooden frame supporting evergreens huddled like homeless men… . The white camper parked on the corner… . HELP! It’s the Xmas on Jane Clan (Billy and Patti Romp and their three children). The Tree People! They’re back! I can’t wait for Christmas Eve, when they depart!

They pee at the Jane Street Tavern. They use the juice from Bonsignour to power their trailer. They occupy the block, block the mailbox and entry to the garden. Decked out in quaint New England garb — overalls, plaid, old-fashioned fedora (which he told me he bought on 34th Street), white goatee. The kids are parodies of the Pa.

Billy Romp outside his trailer several years ago. (Photo by Joseph O. Holmes)

I wince as “Henry, the oldest child,” in stiff, unwashed dreads, paint-splattered overalls, nose rings, is introduced by one local to New Yorkers turned yokels. I cringe and cross the street to avoid the sidewalk gauntlet between leaning, bound trees and locked garden fence, to the tune of canned carols.

“Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh… .”

BAH HUMBUG! What would Lewis Black say? The curmudgeon comic rails against every tradition America reveres. Like Lewis Black, I have a built-in s— detector, visceral radar for phoniness. Posing as authentic tree farmers, the Romps buy their trees. The sidewalk “coniferous tree exception” enables them to sell without a permit. One stand spread to six!

The saccharine “true story” — the book “Christmas on Jane Street” — which has been written up in People (I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie, starring the young Taylor Swift), about Billy Romp’s objection to his daughter, Ellie, going to “The Nutcracker” — reveals a New Englander’s deep-seated mistrust of New York City.

The book’s 10th anniversary edition makes no mention of the Romps’ divorce. Patti Romp set up her own stand in Brooklyn Heights until her death in 2015.

“As long as we’re alive, there will be the Romp family on this corner every Christmas,” Billy Romp has declared.

Why does my heart not soar at the prospect? What’s wrong with me? Their arrival inflicts a painful sense of isolation on those of us (I hope you’re out there) who aren’t part of “The Holidays.” I’m an outsider in my own neighborhood. I’m invisible.

(Photo by Peter Gonzalez)

So, every year I hide. The hiding begins early. I’m alone on Thanksgiving. The high point: “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows.” Somebody has to rail against the “passive oppression” of The Holidays (Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s), bundled like a hex out of Hogwarts.

I try to fathom, how much are these country folk pocketing during their sojourn among us mere mortals, city dwellers? Seized by curiosity, I flip over the tag on a tree, hoping to find a price. I imagine I’m wearing my invisibility cloak borrowed from Harry, but I am seen.

In the fraction of a second, the helper kids are upon me: “Are you looking for a tree?” Schooled in the neighborhood, they realize their mistake and romp off.

I identify with the trees themselves, uprooted from their home in the forest, abducted to the city; like asylum seekers, they await extradition to somebody’s apartment, dressed in some weird charade of life in death, only to be thrown out, come January, tossed to the curb, naked carcasses, tinsel clinging to the branches, destined for mulch.

Barbaric custom  when did it start? According to Jessie McNab, local tree enthusiast, the tree-decorating tradition gained popularity under Queen Victoria. The Rockefeller Center tree-lighting ceremony began in 1931, during the Great Depression.

The dead trees? “They’re still alive!” insists the Romp’s youngest child, Timmy. Tiny Tim? Among life’s cruel jokes: I have a friend whose last name means Christmas Tree. O Tannebaum!

(Photo by The Village Sun)

Once upon a time, I celebrated Christmas… . Fade to retro NYC sidewalk with my stepfather, Harvey Levine, in search of a tree. In the 1960s, a 6-foot tree cost $8 versus hundreds from the Romps today. I loved decorating the Christmas tree. Close-up on hand of child placing the miniature manger on the circle of felt snow shimmering with sparkles at the base of our tree. The angel star with organdy wings was last and perched on top. Harvey plugged in the string of colored lights.

This year, 2010, when the lights of my neighborhood are going out with the loss of St. Vincent’s Hospital, I can’t help but think: We have the symbol for Christmas but where is the thing itself?

Christmas Eve:

’Twas the night before Christmas and …

At the corner of Jane Street and Eighth Avenue, I lurk in hopes of catching the Tree People in the act of vanishing. Every year I wake up Christmas Day to find them gone  — as suddenly as they appear. This is the year I shed the invisibility cloak and approach Billy Romp. Instead he approaches me.

Meeting at OK Corral — O.K., Jane Street. … A pair of cowboys facing off, we circle each other: Billy in his fedora; me in my vintage shades. He lunges toward me, hand extended.

“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Was I single? Would I like to go out on a date?

OMG! The Romp family patriarch is hitting on me!

Billy heard about the hospital closing, but his Christmas-tree business wasn’t affected. This is not his neck of the woods. He leaves tonight.

Christmas Day:

Through the window of La Bonbonniere I see the leftover trees piled up, waiting for the garbage collector. The snow arrives first. As I make my rounds of local businesses, I am Santa dispensing the spirit of Christmas in my own way.


Today, in 2023, looking back through the prism of COVID, 13 years after St. Vincent’s Hospital closure  — as the war in Ukraine drags on and the Israel-Hamas war inflames anti-Semitism here at home — in this dark time, let’s resolve our differences in peace and celebrate the rebirth of the sun. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!


  1. GB GB January 10, 2024

    A couple of years ago I fell and broke my wrist tripping over the debris all over the sidewalk from a Christmas tree stand in Chelsea. I wasn’t a fan to begin with.

    • Kathryn Adisman Kathryn Adisman January 13, 2024

      Thanks for contributing your comment. I’m curious why you weren’t a fan to begin with. I think my critique is primarily satirical and a reaction to the dominance of Christmas that can feel oppressive to those outside a conventional family unit. In fairness, I should note the pathway along 8th Avenue was considerably cleaner and wider than in 2010.

  2. Kathryn Adisman Kathryn Adisman December 21, 2023

    Thank you to everyone who responded to my Christmas-Tree story pro and con! It’s gratifying when a writer is read and understood! Here are a few of the positive comments I received:

    Thank you Kathryn for sharing your article which I enjoyed reading. I admire your bravery in writing on such a “sacred” topic & am sure you have made many feel less alone in their alienation during these enforced good cheer holidays. Bravo!

    Yay! Kathryn!
    Great article. I enjoyed your inner scrooge!

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your article, Kathryn. It was a delicious read! Thank you.

    Nicely done. Excellent writing is a rare thing.

    Nice piece K, I really enjoyed it.
    — Joe

  3. DuchessofNYC DuchessofNYC December 12, 2023

    Pine is a natural antidepressant. I love inhaling deep as I wander past these tree stands. Like aromatic prozac…I don’t get why you think Xmas tree vendors are any more invasive than these outdoor restaurant sheds that have become permanent fixtures of the cityscape. I like that they give people seasonal jobs.

    • Kathryn Adisman Kathryn Adisman December 12, 2023

      The sheds were nonexistent at the time in which this piece is set. I personally love that pine smell too. This was meant to give voice to the outsider who isn’t included in the holidays, represented by the Romps, who take over my neighborhood. The family is not local, but that would be nice if they employ locals.

  4. Kate Walter Kate Walter December 12, 2023

    I liked the writing and the writer gets credit for being such a Grinch and taking a stab at such a sacred institution in our neighborhood, but the last paragraph just did not work. It was totally tacked on.

    And I certainly knew that they bought the trees, that they were not tree farmers.

    • Kathryn Adisman Kathryn Adisman December 12, 2023

      Thanks, Kate. For many years, a neighbor told me that, until she heard it on NPR, she assumed they were tree farmers. How did you know? Did they tell you? When you say the last paragraph, you mean the current year? Yes, it has a tacked-on quality. But this should be seen as a coda.

      • Kate Walter Kate Walter December 17, 2023

        Yes, I was referring to the last paragraph set in the present.

        • Kathryn Adisman Kathryn Adisman December 19, 2023

          I know. It’s a deliberate coda, not integral to the story. I wanted us to look back “through the prism of COVID” from this Christmas.

  5. Robert Lederman Robert Lederman December 11, 2023
    COPING; Ye Olde Coniferous Tree Exception
    By Anemona Hartocollis
    NY Times Dec. 21, 2003

    IS a Christmas tree a work of art?

    ”Actually, I do believe it is,” said Bill, a mustachioed Christmas tree vendor who was sitting in a Winnebago on First Avenue last week.

    He was keeping a watchful eye on a stand that takes up an entire block along the west side of the avenue from 67th Street to 68th, bordering St. Catherine’s Park, a neighborhood playground. The trees — Douglas firs, Fraser firs, grand firs, the bargain-basement balsam, and what he called the Rolls-Royce of trees, the noble fir — were stacked two deep on both sides of the sidewalk, some standing as tall as 10 feet. They looked lovely; they smelled fresh. Passers-by paused to admire them.

    But where did the art come in?

    ”These are all nursery trees,” Bill said proudly. ”They are trimmed about eight times over the years to get their beauty. They don’t just grow wild in the fields. They are art — to us, anyway.”

    But to New York’s other vendors, from street artists to handbag peddlers, the ubiquitous presence of Christmas tree vendors during this jolly season is proof not of the intrinsic artistic value of the trees but of the eternal verity of the notion that in politics, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    Although these other vendors love their shopping and their Christmas cheer as much as anyone, they choke on their eggnog at the sight of snow-dappled sidewalks filled not with black-and-white photographs of the Chrysler Building but with long rows of evergreen.

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    ”I don’t want to be depicted as the Grinch who complained, and now there’s no more Christmas tree sales,” said Robert Lederman, a painter who has been filing lawsuits over vending rights since 1994, after founding Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics. ”But hardly a person among us hasn’t gotten multiple tickets for having a display that’s too big. And too big could mean a fraction of an inch.”

    True, the artists admit, the First Amendment allows them to sell their art year round without a permit, regardless of what critics might think of the stuff. But while the law permits a veritable forest of trees, it confines artistic expression to a display eight feet long by five feet high.

    And what about faux-ostrich handbags? Though for some a perfect Christmas gift, they may not be sold on the street without a permit, whether for Christmas, Hanukkah or Valentine’s Day.

    But Christmas tree vendors need neither permits nor First Amendment protection to spread their holiday cheer. They are entitled to what might be called the ”coniferous tree” exception, adopted by the City Council in 1938 over the veto of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. The city’s administrative code allows that ”storekeepers and peddlers may sell and display coniferous trees during the month of December” on a city sidewalk without a permit, as long as they have the permission of owners fronting the sidewalk and keep a corridor open for pedestrians. (The law originally cited Christmas trees, but the religious reference was removed in 1984.)

    This season Mr. Lederman and his elves have been going around documenting Christmas tree stands in contemplation of a possible challenge to the vending laws. His argument: If Christmas tree vendors are allowed to sell trees without permits, shouldn’t other peddlers have the same right?

    The vending wars are even fiercer than usual this year because of the expiration in March of a 1991 state law limiting sidewalk vending by disabled veterans. (Veterans have had special vending rights since after the Civil War.) Once the law expired, veterans could sell wherever they wanted, and anywhere a veteran set up a stand, the city could not discriminate against artists.

    Not surprisingly, Mr. Lederman is happy with this state of affairs. As for Bill the Christmas tree vendor, he warns that sidewalk tree stands may be more of an endangered art form than twin-tower holograms. ”We’re being gobbled up by the large chains,” he said. ”You get several Home Depots coming in, we’ll be gone.”

    Bill’s business partner, Paco, his long blond hair mussed by too many nights in the trailer, suggested that a bit of Christmas spirit may be in order. ”A Christmas tree stand is a wonderful thing. Thousands of people pass by. We get smiles and cheer. It brightens up the city. That’s a need that’s filled.”

    As Paco talked, Bill glanced out the window. A traffic officer was writing a parking ticket for his truck, which had just delivered a fresh load of trees. ”Wait!” he cried. But it was too late.

    ”I do everything right,” he lamented, ”and I still get my chops busted.” Ho, ho, ho.

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