By Cheranka Mendis
Our office is filled with the wonderful fragrance of Christmas thanks to the seven-foot tree that stands in a basket wrapped in bright green paper and showered with baubles, tinsel, funny ornaments that resemble Vesak lanterns, and bits and pieces of Christmas decorations from the previous years. Walking into office has never felt as good as it does right now, with the all-embracing scent of the cypress tree greeting us every morning.
Having being the first customers to purchase a tree from the vendors who line up along the Viharamahadevi Park pavement opposite Town Hall every year in December, it was only fitting that we explored the stories that lie behind the trees decorating many homes in the country.
All the way to Colombo
Hailing from Bandarawela, each of these vendors bring close to 900 trees to Colombo hoping to sell them to those who cherish the traditional Christmas spirit. Although the artificial trees have caught up in the city and many invest in them hoping for a longer term use, people still come looking for the smaller branches of the cypress to be entwined with the artificial tree to get that special Christmas fragrance.
Gunathilaka, Jayathilaka and Eedearathna are three of the 15 or so vendors who have set-up temporary shelter on the pavement for the next few days. Having brought their goods to town on Thursday, the three are now hoping to sell as many Christmas trees as possible within the next few days.
“We have been doing this for almost 25 years,” Gunathilaka said. “It is a fever I have, selling these cypress trees. If I planted potatoes in the one-and-a-half acres on which I plant these trees, it is likely that I would get better money as the production cycle is three times a year.”
Better use of land
His friend Eedearathna, with whom he shares a tent during his stay in town, added that the trees spoil the soil for any other plant cultivation. “It takes only two years for the cypress trees to come up to a cutting stage for commercial purpose. Cypress trees harm the soil. However, it takes more than 10 years for the soil to accept another plant for successful cultivation,” he said.
Gunathilaka is one of the few who owns his own land to cultivate cypress trees. He stated that he has 1,000 plants ready to be cut in 2013, 900 for 2014 and another 200 ready to be cut even this year.
Both entered the trade when they accompanied a family member years ago on a trip to Colombo for the same purpose. “This is how it works anyway. We bring someone to help, and next year he brings his own lot of trees.” He is a farmer by profession while Eedearathna is an Ayurvedic doctor specialising in snake bites.
World’s end and delayed trips
This year, they brought the trees to Colombo a bit later than they normally do. The reason? The much-anticipated end of the world. “I don’t know miss,” Gunathilaka said. “Everyone was talking about this end of the world so we also decided to come in only at the last minute. Since I have been coming here for so long, I thought even if the end comes, I’ll be doing what I love and decided to come here.”
Another vendor there, who wished to remain anonymous for his son’s benefit, stated that more often than not, the vendors make a loss by selling cypress trees. With his school-going son in tow, this vendor expressed that the costs are high, sometimes unbearably so.
“It costs close to Rs. 35,000 to bring the trees here. In addition we have to pay Rs. 172.50 to obtain the permit to bring down the trees, another Rs. 35 for each of the plants we bring, and then we have to buy the plants from the estates for Rs. 700 upwards.” Having brought close to 500 plants (35x500 = 17,500) it cost him close to Rs. 52,700 to bring the plants to Colombo, excluding the buying costs of cypress.
Gunathilaka, in addition to these costs, also has to pay the helpers he brings Rs. 500 per day over and above the cost for food, etc.
Where’s the Christmas spirit?
“People come and bargain. Some even say that they will come and pick up the trees on the morning of 25 Decmeber. We leave on the night of 24 December. These are not people who don’t have money. They don’t understand our plight and buy the smaller ones for Rs. 700 or less even,” they said. “It is heartbreaking when we have to go back on 25 December with a loss.”
There are also other issues such as Grama Sevakas using other people’s permits to bring their own trees to Colombo. “Most are helpful. Some just like to get by with the least cost, so some are left helpless,” Gunathilaka said, talking of his friend who is still awaiting his paid permit to bring down his trees.
He added: “We are all Buddhists and Hindus here. We don’t celebrate Christmas back at home, but it is always nice to take something back. What we earn we utilise to plant or for essentials at home, like building a bathroom. It would be nice if people who come in big cars and live in big houses understood this.”
Pix by Lasantha Kumara