Christmas Trees – The Tradition

by Jan Cashman 11/16/08

There are many stories about when and where the first Christmas tree came to be, but most think the tradition originated in northern Germany. Pagans in Europe were using evergreen boughs to celebrate winter festivals even before the birth of Christ. Then, in the twelfth century, fir trees began being hung upside down from ceilings in central Europe as a sign of Christianity. Many sources say the first Christmas tree was actually decorated in Riga, Latvia, in 1510.

In England, the Christmas tree tradition started in the 1840’s, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert from Germany. The custom soon moved to America. The first Christmas trees both in Europe and the U.S. were cut from surrounding forests. Commercial Christmas tree farms or plantations came on the scene in the Northeastern U.S. as early as 1900.

It is hard to find a family in America today, whatever their religion, that doesn’t put a holiday tree in their living room in December. The majority of these trees are grown on plantations. Scotch pine, sheared to a perfect, dense shape, is the most commonly grown Christmas tree. Scotch’s popularity is decreasing, however, probably because its density and sharp needles make it difficult to decorate, it often has a thick, crooked trunk, and has little or no Christmas tree aroma.

Most families make it a tradition to buy the same variety of Christmas tree every year. Some choose white pines because of their soft, fluffy needles. However, the thin branches of white pines are not strong enough to hold heavy ornaments. Long-needled Norway and ponderosa pines are less frequently used as Christmas trees, but these two pines have stiffer branches and hold onto their needles for a long time after they are cut.

Short-needled firs are replacing Scotch pine as the most popular Christmas trees in the U.S. Balsam fir, native from Minnesota east, has a traditional shape and wonderful, evergreen smell. Commercially grown in eastern Minnesota where I grew up, balsam fir was my family’s Christmas tree. Fraser fir, native to the southern Appalachians, has gained popularity in recent years because it has all the characteristics desired in a Christmas tree: a perfect shape with spaces between the branches to hang ornaments, needle retention, fresh green color without dye, and evergreen aroma.

The most common Christmas tree used herein Southwestern Montana is the Douglas fir. If you go into the mountains to cut your own tree with a Forest Service permit, chances are you will cut a Douglas fir. Douglas fir has the natural look many Montanans like. It smells good and lasts a long time. Subalpine fir, found at high elevations, has layered branches and a tall, pyramidal shape that is easy to decorate. This year, Montana has sent an alpine fir, harvested in the Bitterroot National Forest, to Washington DC for our Capitol’s Christmas tree. Lodgepole pines, also found in Montana’s forests, are tall and sparse because they grow so close together. If you find one standing apart from other trees, it will be fuller and make a great ‘Montana’ Christmas tree.

How people decorate their Christmas trees has changed over the years. In the first half of the 20th Century, traditional decorations of glass balls and ornaments were used. Real candles were lit on the tree—a dangerous practice. In the 50’s, aluminum trees came into vogue. They were shiny and metallic, lit up from the base with a rotating color wheel. Flocked trees in pink, blue, or white, with glass balls of the same color, provided a nontraditional, monochromatic color scheme popular back then. Tinsel, first used in Germany years ago, was popular in the U.S. in the 50’s and 60’s.

Recent trends, tasteful or not, include trees hung upside down (A throwback to the middle ages?), fiber optic trees, and mini trees decorated with miniature ornaments, good for smaller homes where space is a premium. Martha Stewart has popularized ‘theme’ trees. Around here, decorators like to use a western cowboy theme on Christmas trees, especially when they are decorating the tree for visitors who are coming to ski over the holidays.

Although slower to catch on here where people prefer natural to artificial, the trend the last few years has been toward artificial trees. Artificial trees are convenient, clean, and safe. And today the upper-end artificial trees look very real. This trend has been hard on Christmas tree growers (Northwestern Montana produces a lot of Christmas trees.); many have had to consolidate, plant other crops, or go out of business.

Finally, a few hints to make your Christmas tree last: If you plan to put your Christmas tree up early, choose a type of tree that retains its needles well such as fraser or Douglas fir, or Norway or lodgepole pine. Remember to make a fresh cut on the bottom of the tree’s trunk right before you put it in its stand. Most important, keep water in the stand at all times! Enjoy the wonderful Christmas tree tradition and Merry Christmas!