Der Tannenbaum 

Christmas tree business part of a pagan legacy

Even with newfangled twists, tradition predates Christianity

It's four days after Thanksgiving, 24 shopping days until Christmas, and I'm standing in a dense forest at the corner of South Avenue and Reserve Street. Actually, I'm standing in the middle of a Christmas tree lot. It's a cold, drizzly morning and my senses are inundated by the fresh, wet smell of pine and fir trees, the noise of rush-hour traffic and the sound of snow tires on pavement.

Whether you buy a fresh cut tree, like the ones that have sprouted here on Reserve, unpack the family's trusty artificial tree, go out into the woods to chop down your own timber or pick up a live tree at a nursery to be replanted later, you're are partaking in a tradition older than Christianity, which has been practiced by a variety of cultures and religions around the world.

Cory Dolberry stands amidst Douglas fir, Scotch pine, Blue spruce and Noble fir (to name a few), the vast majority of which have come from tree farms in either Montana's Flathead Valley or Oregon. While Dolberry probably remains unaware that he is participating in a tradition with professional roots going back at least 400 years, there is little doubt that he is providing a service still very much in demand.

Last year, he says, 1,800 trees sold off the lot and this year the goal's 2,100. "We've established a really large customer base," Dolberry says. "People prefer the plantation trees because they're more manicured."

According to the website of the National Christmas Tree Association, pagans long believed that evergreens embody powerful beings, and so they brought them into their homes as protection. Likewise, Egyptians used to bring green palm branches into their home on the shortest day of the year as a symbol of life, and the Romans added ornaments to their evergreens as a way of honoring Saturnus, the god of agriculture.

Obviously, these traditions continue to this day in various forms. A decorated Christmas tree, after all, is as necessary a part of the holiday season for most Americans as shopping, listening to "Jingle Bells" and drinking eggnog.

Meanwhile, some modern variations on tree-based rituals can be seen at local shops. At Caras Nursery's Christmas store there are a variety of decorated trees following certain themes, including a Sesame Street tree, a Disney tree, a Frosty the Snowman tree, and even a fly-fishing tree. The practice of using artificial trees has also become popular in this day and age (Missoula's Wal-Mart sells as many as 400 artificial trees a year).

But for most of us nothing but a real tree will do. You can hike into the woods to chop down your own tree, an activity allowed on public lands with a $3 permit from the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. Though, if you're like me, you know you'll never go to that much trouble. That's why it pleases me to see -- on street corners all over the country -- pseudo-forests appearing at this time of year.

If the idea of a fresh cut tree decorated in your house smacks you as a bit too exploitative, then you can always try a live tree. Beverly Gutman, owner of Marchie's Nursery and Fencing says the practice has picked up over the last five years, in part due to environmental concerns.

"There's a lot of controversy when people cut trees," says Gutman, whose family has been selling both live and cut Christmas trees for most of the last 40 years.

In recent years, Marchie's Nursery has sold between 30 and 40 live trees. Gutman goes on to explain that because a live tree will think its spring when brought indoors and start to come out of its winter dormancy, extra attention and effort is required. "We have good success [with replanting], as long as people follow a few, simple guidelines," says Gutman.

The trick, according to Gutman, is not to keep the tree inside for too long, and protecting it for a week or two after bringing it back outside.

Hawking trees on street corners as always seemed to be a symbol of American capitalism at its best -- or worse, depending on my level of holiday cynicism that year. I have often wondered where else except the United States during the 20th century would someone think of erecting a pseudo-forest on a street corner to be sold one tree at a time?

Well, even this tradition goes back away. The Germans are credited with the first retail Christmas tree lots starting around the middle of the 1500s. Older women reportedly sold trees harvested from nearby forests, during which time the first reference was made in Germany of what we would think of as a Christmas tree today.

While cutting down Christmas trees offends some people, most come from tree farms. With increased concern for the environment, though, many are decorating live trees and planting them later. Photo by Jeff Powers.

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