A tale of two trees 

To chop or not to chop, that is the question

No one knows for sure who decorated the first Christmas tree. Some historians trace the custom back to Martin Luther, who, according to legend, was out walking one December evening circa 1500 when he was struck by the beauty of a small stand of snow-covered evergreens glittering in the moonlight. On returning home, the Protestant reformist supposedly set up a small fir tree indoors, lit it with candles to represent the stars of the firmament that once twinkled over Bethlehem, and used it to share the story of Jesus with children.

A nice story. But even if it’s true, Martin Luther was hardly the first to associate evergreens with Christianity. According to another legend, St. Boniface, who converted the Germans to Christianity nearly a thousand years ago, was out for another fateful walk when he came across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. Boniface is said to have first felled the oak in anger and then watched in amazement as a young fir sprang up from its roots. As with Luther’s inaugural fir, St. Boniface’s precocious sapling makes for a nice story but also demonstrates the lengths to which Christian legend will go to claim ownership of ideas or practices preceding them by thousands of years.

The ancient Egyptians venerated evergreen foliage and brought green date palms into their homes on the winter solstice to celebrate the triumph of life over death. The Romans, who marked the solstice with a festival called Saturnalia in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture, also decorated their homes with greens and lights and exchanged gifts of coins and pastries symbolizing prosperity and happiness, and lamps to light one’s journey through life. The Druids of the British Isles worshipped oaks and mistletoe, lit them with candles and hung golden apples to celebrate the return of longer days. Pre-Christian Scandinavians brought evergreen trees inside their homes or placed them outside their doors to show their faith in the renewal of life come spring. Luther himself would have been familiar with the Paradise Tree, a conifer decorated with fruits, nuts, lights and paper flowers (and later painted eggshells, candy and cookies) for a popular annual play about Adam and Eve.

European Christmas customs were slow to spread to the New World, in part because the Puritans banned the holiday in New England. Schools in Boston stayed open on Christmas Day through 1870, occasionally expelling students who stayed home.

The Christmas tree, therefore, probably arrived in America with German settlers in New York and Pennsylvania—possibly even by way of Hessian mercenaries fighting in the American Revolution. The practice of keeping a Christmas tree seems to have been confined to areas around the Rhine River prior to the 18th century, which would have included the mercenaries’ home province of Hesse. According to yet another popular Christmas legend, Hessian troops in New Jersey were seduced into drinking, feasting and merrymaking by the sight of their candlelit Tannenbaum, allowing George Washington’s forces to attack and defeat them at Trenton on Christmas Eve, 1776.

The first commercial Christmas tree market in the United States took place in 1851, when a Catskills farmer named Mark Carr hauled two ox-drawn sledges laden with evergreens into New York City and sold them all. It has been estimated that one in five American families had a Christmas tree by 1900, and by 1920 the custom was nearly universal.

Christmas tree farms sprang up during the Great Depression, when nurserymen who couldn’t sell their evergreens for landscaping discovered that people would buy them to decorate for the holidays. Today, the Christmas tree industry includes more than 15,000 growers in North America, employing over 100,000 people and accounting for more than a million acres under cultivation in fifty states. Over 95 percent of Christmas trees decorated in the United States annually are grown on commercial farms, with just six species accounting for more than 90 percent of the trade. Scotch pine tops the list of preferred trees with about 40 percent of the market, followed by Douglas fir at about 35 percent, then noble fir, white pine, balsam fir and white spruce.

Some 35 million trees are harvested from commercial farms every year, with at least twice that number of new seedlings planted at an average density of 2000 trees per acre. Most of these young trees will grow for six to eight years before being harvested and replaced with new ones. In 2001, 17 percent of Christmas trees sold in the United States were sold by chain stores; 15 per cent by non-profit groups; 21 percent from retail lots and 33 percent from farms where customers choose and cut their own trees. The top six Christmas tree-producing states, in declining order of production, are Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington and Wisconsin. Fourth-ranking Michigan, incidentally, boasts more varieties of Christmas tree than any other state—13 of them. More than 330,000 real Christmas trees are now sold via e-commerce and catalogs. Combined value of the 2001 harvest: $360 million.

Christmas trees and the manner in which they are decorated can have historical and political connotations as well. The city of Oslo, Norway has given a Christmas tree to the city of Westminster, England every year since 1947 as a token of good will and gratitude for Britain’s help during World War II. Since 1971, the Canadian province of Nova Scotia has presented an annual tree to the people of Boston in gratitude for the relief supplies donated by that city’s citizens after a ship exploded in Halifax harbor in 1917, leveling part of the city and killing or injuring thousands. In 1963, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. was delayed until three days before Christmas because of a national 30-day period of mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy. In 1979, only the top ornament of the National Tree was lit, to honor American hostages in Iran.

The ceremonial lighting of the tree on the White House lawn, incidentally, was introduced in 1923 by President Calvin Coolidge. Before Coolidge, Franklin Pierce, the 14th President, was the first to decorate a Christmas tree in the White House. Teddy Roosevelt, for his part, once banned Christmas trees from the White House for environmental reasons. Tinsel was also banned at one time by the United States government. It used to contain lead. Now it’s made of plastic.

A harvested Christmas tree can consume up to a quart of water per day during its first week indoors. Commercially available preparations for prolonging the health of cut trees typically consist of over 90 percent sugar and five percent citric acid. Christmas tree care experts recommend sawing off the bottom inch of the tree before installing it, then making sure to keep it well watered to prevent the vesicles, which transport water and nutrients to the boughs and needles, from closing off at the cut end.

The fairy or angel at the top of the Christmas tree was originally, in medieval Germany, a figurine of the baby Jesus. In Victorian Britain, little girls would take the angels down after Christmas and dress them in doll’s clothes. British Christmas trees since Victorian times have traditionally been topped with fairies, not angels.

The practice of using candles to light ceremonial trees is older than Christmas itself and has resulted in untold deaths and injuries from inevitable fires. It wasn’t until 1882 that Edward Johnson, an assistant at Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratories, came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees. The first set of such consisted of 80 bulbs and cost the laboratory a small fortune to produce. Even as late as 1903, over ten years after the first sets of commercially produced lights became available in 1890, they still cost the equivalent of the average American weekly wage.

Electric lights, however, are no guarantee that the family Christmas tree and everything around it won’t eventually be consumed in a blazing inferno. According to the National Fire Protection Association, about 300 residential fires start every year when Christmas trees ignite, causing more than $8 million in property damage annually. (Real Christmas trees, commercial tree grower associations counter, are involved in less than one-tenth of one percent of residential fires, and then only when ignited by some external ignition source). Knowledgeable sources recommend adorning natural trees with strings of miniature bulbs that produce less heat and will not dry out the needles as quickly as larger bulbs.

Manufacturers of artificial Christmas trees, on the other hand, are quick to point out that a vinyl tree retains its fire-resistant properties for the duration of its 15-20 year projected product life, while even the best-cared-for natural tree will dry out in a matter of weeks.

Manufacturers also tout economic benefits of artificial trees. Fake trees typically cost less than $200—an investment of just $10 per year or less averaged out over a 20-year period—while a natural tree can cost $30 to $50 per year.

Manufacturers also claim that artificial trees play an important role in vinyl recycling, with about 25 million pounds of industrial scrap that might otherwise have ended up in landfills going into the production of Christmas trees and other artificial seasonal greenery every year. In 2001, 24 percent of U.S. households had a real tree and 52 percent had an artificial tree (23 percent had no tree). So far in 2002, 32 percent of Christmas trees displayed in United States are real trees; 49 percent are fake.

The average plastic tree, however, spends less than half of its projected 20-year life in an American home before it ends up in a landfill, where it will never biodegrade. Manufacturing plastic trees from petroleum also releases noxious gases into the atmosphere, and a recent study by Swedish scientists shows that as some plastic trees age, they release dangerous lead compounds and other “environmentally burdening substances” into the household. The study found that more than 50 million American households now use artificial trees made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which contains tin and cadmium as stabilizers, and around 20 million of those are estimated to be 9 years old or older. Happy holidays, kids—now go put your particle masks on and wash your hands before you eat anything.

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, and additional research funded by the National Christmas Tree Association, 83 percent of the 11.5 million artificial trees imported by the United States in 2000 came from China, a known producer of lead-filled products. Environmental costs incurred in transportation are also worth considering: Each plastic Christmas making the 10,000-plus mile trip from China to an American retail outlet consumes an estimated five pounds of oil.

Proponents of natural Christmas trees (whose ranks naturally include the estimated 15,000 commercial tree growers in North America) prefer to emphasize the environmental benefits conferred by trees before harvesting. Growers, in fact, consider Christmas trees to be the most environmentally sound crop around. An acre of cultivated trees can remove up to 13 tons of carbon dioxide and airborne pollutants from the atmosphere per year while providing enough oxygen to support 18 people. The “edge effect” of a stand of trees adjacent to a woodlot, they say, also promotes species diversity and provides habitat and refuge for dozens of species of birds and mammals. Seventy three million new Christmas trees will be planted this year, and 59 percent of trees on display this year will be recycled in community programs. In Missoula, you can have your natural Christmas tree recycled by calling EKO Compost at 721-1423.

The Brazilian town of Itu lays claim to the dubious honor of having the world’s tallest artificial Christmas tree: 250 feet, including a 13-foot red star at the top. The 150-ton monster, designed to resemble a fir, is decorated with 6,500 light bulbs and plastic ribbons strung from cables running from the top to the base. A town some 16 miles from Itu (home also to an enormous street light and an oversized phone booth), can be seen from the top of the thick steel mast that serves as the trunk.

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