This Pittsburgher is the Santa Claus of Christmas trees — and you can help

It all started with a Craigslist post. 

Last year, Bill Toland of Baldwin Borough came across an old artificial Christmas tree in his basement. He didn’t need it anymore, so he decided to give it away. 

Bill turned to Craigslist, as one does. He offered it up for free. And that was that. Or so he thought. 

Within hours he’d received dozens of responses. 

“It caught me off guard,” Bill told The Incline. “It was a little humbling.” 

The stories in his inbox were compelling. 

One involved a house fire, another a woman starting over after a divorce. All wanted a tree for Christmas — the same one that Bill no longer had any use for. 

Bill gave the tree to the first guy who’d responded, but he was bothered by all those he couldn’t help. So he decided to do something about it. 

With help from his friends, Bill bought more artificial trees and managed to give four more away. He hand-delivered them to people around the Pittsburgh area. 

And he’s doing it again this year, only on a slightly bigger scale. 

Bill agreed — somewhat reluctantly (see below) — to talk to us about the effort.

We discussed what it means to him, why trees are such an important part of the holidays for so many, how you can get involved if you’re feeling the spirit, and why it’s worth pausing to appreciate the little things we so often take for granted this time of year. 

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

The Incline: Hi, Bill. Tell us how this all started.

Bill: I was cleaning out my basement and came across an old tree that I hadn’t used in years. And I thought why not put it on Craigslist for free and maybe someone would take it.  

Within two or three hours, there were dozens of people saying, “I really need a tree this year. We don’t have one. Can you help me out?”

And that surprised me. I mean, none of us are oblivious to the needs of others, especially at this time of year. But sometimes it’s surprising when it’s right there in front of you.  

I gave it to the first guy who responded. (That man lives in a small apartment above a diner in Glassport. He called the tree a “great blessing” in his life.) 

I felt bad for the others. 

Then I posted about it on Facebook two days later, and my friends read it and said, “Hey, that’s sweet. I’ll give you some money and you can get trees for some of the other people on the list.”  

I bought four or five more. 

I told my friends that I was surprised by how many people wanted the first tree, and my friends said it made perfect sense: if you’re in a pinch at Christmas, are you going to buy a tree or are you going to buy presents or food first? Also, some people don’t have a car and aren’t able to move a seven-foot tree by themselves. 

The Incline: So a tree might not be at the top of anyone’s list, but it’s obviously important based on these responses. Why do you think that is? 

Bill: I don’t know. I guess if you grew up opening presents around a tree all your life and you can’t afford one or you’re in place without one …

That’s where you put the presents, right? That’s where you wake up and go downstairs to see what Santa left. 

It’s a part of Christmas. For some people it would be strange to have a Christmas without one.  

The Incline: What about you? 

Bill: I grew up in a family with a big living room and a giant Christmas tree every year. My mother never met a tree that was too large for that space. I’m talking nine-feet tall by nine-feet wide.

And there was one year that it was way too big for the living room and it fell over. (Editor’s note: We can only imagine it looked something like this.)

But trees were a big part of my childhood Christmases. 

The Incline: What you’re doing is obviously adding to the enjoyment of the holiday for people who receive these trees. But what about you? Is this making you more merry and mirthful? 

Bill: I’m pretty merry and mirthful to start with, but, yeah. Everyone is looking for ways to help out in any way they can. It makes you feel good and bad in some ways — it’s gratifying, but you also feel for people who are in difficult spots in their lives.  

This is not about me, though, and that’s partly why I hesitated to do this interview. I also don’t want anyone to feel like a charity case. This is just some friends getting together to do this thing. 

But, yes, it makes me feel good that so many people responded, and I’m glad to be helping folks who may be in a rough patch or looking for a little help. (Bill isn’t vetting anyone’s financials or life story to determine need, but he wants people to actually use the trees and is working to avoid professional ‘internet resellers.’)

The Incline: Are these all artificial trees? 

Bill: Yes. That way they’ll have it year to year.  

The Incline: How do you get these trees to people? 

Bill: Last year, I personally took them to their homes or a meeting spot. I have several offers from friends and former colleagues to help deliver them this year.  

The Incline: How many do you plan to give out this year? 

Bill: I set a goal of 10. And that includes the tree but also trimmings, maybe a few ornaments. 

The Incline: How can people help?

Bill: We have a GoFundMe up with a goal of $1,000 — it’s at around $600 at last check. That’s $1,000 for 10 trees and some ornaments. 

The Incline: Well, best of luck with the cheer-spreading, Bill. And happy holidays.

Bill: Happy holidays to you.