For Dannie Kelly, selling Christmas trees is a lifelong pursuit

Dannie Kelly has sold Christmas trees in Boston for the last three decades. Jesse Costa/WBUR photo.

This story was first published on December 20 by WBUR 90.9FM, Boston’s NPR News Station. WBUR and the Reporter have a partnership in which the two news organziations share resources and content.Listen to this story here.

Dannie Kelly is a real-life Santa Claus of the city — a deliverer of Christmas trees and holiday cheer in the heart of Dorchester’s Four Corners neighborhood. His tree lot is a shining offering in a community without a lot of other holiday decorations — with big trees leaned against a brick wall, a 7-foot candy cane in lights, and a large, jovial man at the center of it all, hawking trees and spreading good cheer.

Kelly, an ordained Baptist minister, lives in Mattapan, and has been selling Christmas trees in Boston for three decades. Buy a tree from Kelly, and you’re in for more than an evergreen. It’s an experience that makes some customers giddy.

The 62-year-old says his vocational pursuit has roots in his early years growing up in the South.

“When I was a child, my mom would say, ‘Go get a tree.’ We'd go to the open air market. There was no person of color,” he recalls. “So I said, 'If they can put that in their community, why do we have to walk out of our community?' It stuck in my mind.”

Years later in Boston, Kelly got his start selling trees on a vacant lot on Columbus Avenue.

For 28 Christmas seasons, he peddled his wares there.

But Roxbury Community College eventually bought the lot, and four years ago, according to Kelly, school officials told him he could no longer operate in the same spot.

A spokesperson for the college declined to comment.

The decision drew dismay from some in the community, including Mel King, the South End-based civil rights activist who was influential in the formation of RCC.

The college should allow Kelly to return to his old spot, says King, who continues to get his Christmas trees from Kelly.

“If the space is available, what’s the problem?” King said.

“You have somebody in the community, a business person, and a space that’s available… For us, that’s a slam dunk."

King says RCC was formed to help guide young people to “the right path,” and he says that’s what Kelly is doing.

Kelly operates what he calls a mentoring program, dating back to his early days selling trees, dedicated to high school kids as well as people who need a fresh start.

“We try to hire at least one or two people that have come out of incarceration," he says, "and we follow them until they get a job.”

For the kids it’s more than a mentoring program - it’s a way to make money during the holiday. Kelly says he requires participants to get a C or better in school, and to carry themselves appropriately on the tree lot.

“There's a dress code,” he said." If you go to Wall Street you have to wear a shirt and a tie. If you come out here in the snow... you have to wear long johns."

Though there’s less business, Kelly's Community Christmas Trees has become a holiday mainstay in Dorchester.

For Noah De Amor, who owns a small bike shop in nearby Upham’s Corner, it’s important that people can buy things in their own neighborhood -- from someone who looks like them.

"I love the fact that there's a black man selling Christmas trees right in the community," he says.

As neighbors, he and Kelly share a common struggle as the little guys in retail.

“It's funny because our largest competitor is actually Target, which is located in the same shopping complex as Home Depot, which is Dannie’s largest competitor,” De Amor says, urging shoppers to spend their money at locally-owned businesses.

Doug Hundley, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, says buying real Christmas trees anywhere is a way to support local agriculture. But, he says it's hard for big-box stores to match the level of service provided by sellers like Kelly.

“[They are] putting tree stands and loading them on people's vehicles and putting them in their trunks and telling them how to take care of them,” he said. “Now, I know that the box stores want their employees to do more of that, but I'm not sure that they can compete with the personal touch of someone like Dannie there.”

Business seems to be buzzing, but between competition and his less-trafficked location, it isn’t what it used to be for Dannie Kelly.

But even if he’s operating at a loss, Kelly says he’ll stay in business as long as he can for the sake of the community — and Christmas.

WBUR and the Reporter have a partnership in which the two news organziations share resources and content.Simón Rios works in part from the Dorchester Reporter offices. He may be reached at srios@wbur.org.