Christmas Trees

A Christmas tree is one of the most popular traditions associated with Christmas celebrations. A Christmas tree is normally an evergreen coniferous tree that is brought into a home and then decorated with lights and an array of ornaments during the days before Christmas.

In traditions, Christmas trees are not usually brought inside and decorated until Christmas Eve (December 24th), and were often removed from the home on the day after twelfth night (around January 6th). Back then, if you have a Christmas tree up before or after these dates was actually considered to be bad luck. With the current commercialisation of Christmas, it has resulted in Christmas trees being put up far earlier than tradition holds. One can see Christmas trees appear in shops often as early as mid October. In the United States, it has become common to put the tree up the day after Thanksgiving, which occurs the fourth Thursday every November. Many homes commonly take the tree down soon after  New Year's Day. Across Europe,  Christmas trees are usually put up in mid December and are often taken down the first week of January.

Natural Christmas Trees & Tree Species

The best species for Christmas tree usage are species of fir. Fir has the major of not shedding needles when it dries out, fir also gives off good color and fragrance. Other tree species are used however. The most common Christmas tree species used across the US and Canada are:

  • Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)
  • Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)
  • Noble Fir (Abies procera)
  • Red Fir (Abies magnifica)
  • Grand Fir (Abies grandis)
  • Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
  • Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

Some other tree species are used but less commonly. Less traditional conifers are infrequently used, such as the Giant Sequoia, Leyland Cypress and the Eastern Juniper. The Blue Spruce is also used as a Christmas tree, though it has very sharp needles, which can make decorating painful and difficult. The Virginia Pine is available on tree farms in the southeast United States, though its winter color is usually faded. The longer needled Eastern White Pine is also sometimes used in that region. Norfolk Island pine is also used in some regions like Oceania. In Australia, species of the Genera Casuarina as well as the Allocasuarina are also used as Christmas trees.

Other Christmas trees are sold live and with their original roots and soil. Live trees are usually bought from a nursery. Live trees can be planted after Christmas and enjoyed outdoors for many years. One disadvantage though, is that the combination of root loss when the tree is dug up and the dry and warm atmosphere of a home is detrimental to a tree's health, so the survival rate of live trees is generally low. Live trees must also be kept inside only for a few days or a week or so, as the warmth of your home can bring them out of dormancy, thus leaving the tree little natural protection when it is put back outside in cold weather. Others trees are produced in a container and can be used on a patio or porch.

In Europe, they traditionaly prefer naturally grown and unsheared or untrimmed trees. In North America, they prefer closer sheared and trimmed trees with dense foliage. The shearing or trimming can also damage the beautiful symmetry of the unsheared or untrimmed trees. Christmas trees were, in the past, harvested from wild forests, though now almost all Christmas tree are commercially grown on Christmas tree farms.

Almost all of the Christmas trees in the US are grown on Christmas tree farms, where the trees are typically cut after ten years or so of growth. According to the USDA agriculture census for 2002, there were over 21,000 Christmas tree farms that were producing trees for the pre-cut Christmas tree market in the US, nearly 450,000 acres were planted and nearly 14,000 farms harvested their cut trees.

Christmas Tree History

The Christmas tree is usually explained as a Christianization of a very old pagan idea that the evergreen tree represents the celebration of a "renewal of life". In some ancient Roman mosaics from the area around Tunisia, the god depicted is showed with a tapering evergreen, coniferous tree.

Patron trees held significance for ancient Germanic tribes, and they appeared throughout ancient accounts as sacred objects. Among the earliest Germanic tribes, a Yule tradition was celebrated where they sacrificed male animals and sometimes slaves by suspending them on branches of trees. In Scandinavia, the pagan kings actually sacrificed 9 males of different species at their sacred groves every 9th year. According to a legend, Saint Boniface actually attempted to introduce the idea of the trinity to pagan tribes using cone shaped evergreen trees due to their triangular appearance.

In the UK, a Christmas tree was introduced by King George III's German Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, however it did not spread far beyond their own royal family. When Queen Victoria was a child, she was very familiar with the custom, and in her journal for the Christmas Eve of the year 1832, she wrote: "After dinner...we then went into the drawing room near the dining room,  there were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.". After her marriage to German cousin, Prince Albert, the custom then became more widespread. In the year 1847, Prince Albert actually wrote: "I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be". Prince Albert also gave many trees to schools and the military at Christmastime. Many images of the British royal family with their Christmas tree at Osborne House were shown in magazines of the time.

There is a handful of cities in the US that lay their claim to the country's first Christmas tree. The city of Windsor Locks, Connecticut claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in the year 1777 while he was imprisoned at the Noden Reed House, so making it the home of the very first Christmas tree in New England. The "First Christmas Tree in America" is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers supposedly had erected a Christmas tree in the year 1816.