Christmas Trees

Perhaps the ubiquity of Christmas ubiquities is the tree that many celebrants add to their homes to decorate during the season.

Raising plants indoors is not an oddity, but purchasing a sizable tree to move into one’s abode seems a bit out of the ordinary. How did we begin to string lights, toss tinsel, and pin ornaments to evergreens inside during Christmas?

As with many traditions, the origins of this practice seem to be ancient and disputed.

Glade jul by Viggo Johansen (1891)

Some scholars trace the tradition from pre-Christian usages of evergreen trees to symbolize eternal life by ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, and Chinese. In Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Christmas trees, they aver the tree worship of these old civilizations survived the transition to Christianity in Scandanavia and other Northern European locales, where people would employ evergreens to ward off the Devil near the New Year and place trees for roosting birds at Christmas.

Another theory centers around the medieval usage of the “tree of paradise.” On the 24th of December, mystery plays were performed on the name day of Adam and Eve. People adorned these trees with apples to represent the forbidden fruit and wafters to symbolize the Eucharist. Though the strict practice seems to have faded, these trees of paradise joined nativity cribs in the homes of the faithful. Often, apples became red balls. Perhaps these trees morphed into the Christmas versions?

Whatever the ancient antecedent, by the 16th century, modern Christmas trees had emerged in Lutheran Germany. Sometimes historians point to Martin Luther as the progenitor of the contemporary trend, as he supposedly added lighted candles to evergreens. In 1539, the Cathedral of Strasbourg nabbed a Christmas tree and the convention stuck. In North America, German immigrants brought the custom from home and we have become a continent fixated on wintertime decorations.

An Italian-American family on Christmas, 1924 - Library of Congress

Though our mindspaces might place pine trees at the center of the custom, it would technically be more accurate to associate Christmas with evergreen conifers.

Several genera comprise the most popular Christmas tree models. In the United States, a fir is the most prevalent tree, not a pine, as firs do not drop needles as they dry. The Douglas fir tops the list. Other widespread species include Frasier firs, Noble firs, Balsam firs, Scotch pines, and Pinyon pines.

In Europe, the most common Christmas tree is a Norway spruce.

In the wild, these trees can become quite majestic. The versions humans use indoors are youngsters. Christmas farms typically buy trees between the ages of three and four.

Douglas fir in Washington - photo by Walter Siegmund
A Frasier fir Christmas tree farm - photo by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Balsam fir trees - photo by Madereugeneandrew
A Scotch pine in Sweden - photo by Mickaël Delcey
A Norway Spruce in Estonia - photo by Ivar Leidus

The usage of artificial trees has become more and more commonplace. The debate about the best method of Christmas-tree-ing one’s life is a raging inferno.

Those who ditched the practice of procuring a real tree cite several reasons: an artificial tree is likely cheaper over one’s lifespan than purchasing new trees each year; less stress when it comes to a busy holiday season; artificial trees are more environmentally friendly than live trees, as the plastics are recyclable and they cut down on potential waste of organic matter.

On the other side of the discussion, those who prefer real trees counter with points of their own. They claim the plastics in many trees are, in fact, not as recyclable as claimed and the environmental aspects of tree farms are not as harmful as often portrayed. The trees are close to carbon neutral and produced as a crop, meaning they are replaced sustainably. Further, these folks simply enjoy the feel of real.

The reality is, as usual, far more nuanced. Economics seems to be on the side of artificial trees, as long as one is in it for the long game. The ability for plastic trees to be recycled seems to an unknown, though a tree used in perpetuity could theoretically skip the need for recycling. Despite the disposable nature of real trees, they do not pose as much environmental devastation as one might believe initially. Cut trees can become mulch, benefitting the natural order; these farms are demonstrably better than clear-cutting a forest. However, pesticides, poor farming techniques that lead to erosion, and transportation all lead to trees not being completely carbon neutral. Studies show that natural trees generate 3.1 kilograms of greenhouse gases each year, whereas an artificial tree will produce 48.3 kg over a lifetime. So, a fake tree wins the emission battle in a 16-year period. The big “however” in this equation is that the stats above for real trees are based on transportation from just three miles from home. Add in more driving and the case for the real tree gets worse. 

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in 2009 - photo by zenmasterdod

Of course, if one wants to maintain the tradition of a real tree and is willing to put in some work, the potential waste of a trashed cut tree is avoidable.

Farms sell potted trees, which can be replanted after the holidays. If one has the space, this option can leave a lasting keepsake of Christmases past. Some companies will even rent live, potted trees. They will transport the replantable tree to your location, pick it up afterward, and plant it in a spot that will benefit the natural ecosystem.

However you like your trees, the prospects of this custom going away anytime soon is close to nil. Americans spend over $2 billion dollars each year on natural trees and nearly that much on artificial ones. For once, American consumers are not top of the heap: Europeans harvest more than $3.2 billion in natural trees each Christmas.

Whether you go artificial, real, or eschew a tree altogether, may your garlands be joyous, your tinsel merry, and long may your LEDs twinkle!

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