Popular christmas tree species

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The history of Christmas trees goes back to the symbolic use of evergreens in ancient Egypt and Rome and continues with the German tradition of candlelit Christmas trees first brought to America in the 1800s. Discover the history of the Christmas tree, from the earliest winter solstice celebrations to Queen Victoria’s decorating habits and the annual lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree in New York City.

How Did Christmas Trees Start?

Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from his illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes, which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death.

Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon, farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.

In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.

Christmas Trees From Germany

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

Who Brought Christmas Trees to America?

Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.

It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims’s second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

An illustration from a December 1848 edition of the Illustrated London News shows Queen Victoria and her family surrounding a Christmas tree.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived.

By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.

The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

The Rockefeller Center tree is located at Rockefeller Center, west of Fifth Avenue from 47th through 51st Streets in New York City.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree dates back to the Depression era. The tallest tree displayed at Rockefeller Center arrived in 1948. It was a Norway Spruce that measured 100 feet tall and hailed from Killingworth, Connecticut.

The first tree at Rockefeller Center was placed in 1931. It was a small unadorned tree placed by construction workers at the center of the construction site. Two years later, another tree was placed there, this time with lights. These days, the giant Rockefeller Center tree is laden with over 25,000 Christmas lights.

Christmas Trees Around the World

Christmas Trees in Canada

German settlers migrated to Canada from the United States in the 1700s. They brought with them many of the things associated with Christmas we cherish today—Advent calendars, gingerbread houses, cookies—and Christmas trees. When Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1848, the Christmas tree became a tradition throughout England, the United States, and Canada.

Christmas Trees in Mexico

In most Mexican homes the principal holiday adornment is el Nacimiento (Nativity scene). However, a decorated Christmas tree may be incorporated in the Nacimiento or set up elsewhere in the home. As purchase of a natural pine represents a luxury commodity to most Mexican families, the typical arbolito (little tree) is often an artificial one, a bare branch cut from a copal tree (Bursera microphylla) or some type of shrub collected from the countryside.

Christmas Trees in Great Britain

The Norway spruce is the traditional species used to decorate homes in Britain. The Norway spruce was a native species in the British Isles before the last Ice Age, and was reintroduced here before the 1500s.

Christmas Trees in Greenland

Christmas trees are imported, as no trees live this far north. They are decorated with candles and bright ornaments.

Christmas Trees in Guatemala

The Christmas tree has joined the “Nacimiento” (Nativity scene) as a popular ornament because of the large German population in Guatemala. Gifts are left under the tree on Christmas morning for the children. Parents and adults do not exchange gifts until New Year’s Day.

Christmas Trees in Brazil
Although Christmas falls during the summer in Brazil, sometimes pine trees are decorated with little pieces of cotton that represent falling snow.

Christmas Trees in Ireland
Christmas trees are bought anytime in December and decorated with colored lights, tinsel, and baubles. Some people favor the angel on top of the tree, others the star. The house is decorated with garlands, candles, holly, and ivy. Wreaths and mistletoe are hung on the door.

Christmas Trees in Sweden
Most people buy Christmas trees well before Christmas Eve, but it’s not common to take the tree inside and decorate it until just a few days before. Evergreen trees are decorated with stars, sunbursts, and snowflakes made from straw. Other decorations include colorful wooden animals and straw centerpieces.

Christmas Trees in Norway
Nowadays Norwegians often take a trip to the woods to select a Christmas tree, a trip that their grandfathers probably did not make. The Christmas tree was not introduced into Norway from Germany until the latter half of the 19th century; to the country districts it came even later. When Christmas Eve arrives, there is the decorating of the tree, usually done by the parents behind the closed doors of the living room, while the children wait with excitement outside. A Norwegian ritual known as “circling the Christmas tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and then walk around it singing carols. Afterwards, gifts are distributed.

Christmas Trees in Ukraine
Celebrated on December 25th by Catholics and on January 7th by Orthodox Christians, Christmas is the most popular holiday in the Ukraine. During the Christmas season, which also includes New Year’s Day, people decorate fir trees and have parties.

Christmas Trees in Spain
A popular Christmas custom is Catalonia, a lucky strike game. A tree trunk is filled with goodies and children hit at the trunk trying to knock out the hazel nuts, almonds, toffee, and other treats.

Christmas Trees in Italy
In Italy, the presepio (manger or crib) represents in miniature the Holy Family in the stable and is the center of Christmas for families. Guests kneel before it and musicians sing before it. The presepio figures are usually hand-carved and very detailed in features and dress. The scene is often set out in the shape of a triangle. It provides the base of a pyramid-like structure called the ceppo. This is a wooden frame arranged to make a pyramid several feet high. Several tiers of thin shelves are supported by this frame. It is entirely decorated with colored paper, gilt pine cones, and miniature colored pennants. Small candles are fastened to the tapering sides. A star or small doll is hung at the apex of the triangular sides. The shelves above the manger scene have small gifts of fruit, candy, and presents. The ceppo is in the old Tree of Light tradition which became the Christmas tree in other countries. Some houses even have a ceppo for each child in the family.

Christmas Trees in Germany
Many Christmas traditions practiced around the world today started in Germany.

It has long been thought that Martin Luther began the tradition of bringing a fir tree into the home. According to one legend, late one evening, Martin Luther was walking home through the woods and noticed how beautifully the stars shone through the trees. He wanted to share the beauty with his wife, so he cut down a fir tree and took it home. Once inside, he placed small, lighted candles on the branches and said that it would be a symbol of the beautiful Christmas sky. The Christmas tree was born.

Another legend says that in the early 16th century, people in Germany combined two customs that had been practiced in different countries around the globe. The Paradise tree (a fir tree decorated with apples) represented the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Christmas Light, a small, pyramid-like frame, usually decorated with glass balls, tinsel and a candle on top, was a symbol of the birth of Christ as the Light of the World. Changing the tree’s apples to tinsel balls and cookies and combining this new tree with the light placed on top, the Germans created the tree that many of us know today.

Modern Tannenbaum (Christmas trees) are traditionally decorated in secret with lights, tinsel and ornaments by parents and then lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts and gifts under its branches.

Christmas Trees in South Africa
Christmas is a summer holiday in South Africa. Although Christmas trees are not common, windows are often draped with sparkling cotton wool and tinsel.

Christmas Trees in Saudi Arabia
Christian Americans, Europeans, Indians, Filipinos, and others living here have to celebrate Christmas privately in their homes. Christmas lights are generally not tolerated. Most families place their Christmas trees somewhere inconspicuous.

Christmas Trees in Philippines
Fresh pine trees are too expensive for many Filipinos, so handmade trees in an array of colors and sizes are often used. Star lanterns, or parol, appear everywhere in December. They are made from bamboo sticks, covered with brightly colored rice paper or cellophane, and usually feature a tassel on each point. There is usually one in every window, each representing the Star of Bethlehem.

Christmas Trees in China
Of the small percentage of Chinese who do celebrate Christmas, most erect artificial trees decorated with spangles and paper chains, flowers, and lanterns. Christmas trees are called “trees of light.”

Christmas Trees in Japan
For most of the Japanese who celebrate Christmas, it’s purely a secular holiday devoted to the love of their children. Christmas trees are decorated with small toys, dolls, paper ornaments, gold paper fans and lanterns, and wind chimes. Miniature candles are also put among the tree branches. One of the most popular ornaments is the origami swan. Japanese children have exchanged thousands of folded paper “birds of peace” with young people all over the world as a pledge that war must not happen again.

Christmas Tree Trivia

Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since about 1850.

In 1979, the National Christmas Tree was not lighted except for the top ornament. This was done in honor of the American hostages in Iran.

Between 1887-1933 a fishing schooner called the Christmas Ship would tie up at the Clark Street bridge and sell spruce trees from Michigan to Chicagoans.

The tallest living Christmas tree is believed to be the 122-foot, 91-year-old Douglas fir in the town of Woodinville, Washington.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition began in 1933. Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, brought the Christmas tree tradition to the White House.

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony now held every year on the White House lawn.

Since 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has given a Christmas tree to the President and first family.

Most Christmas trees are cut weeks before they get to a retail outlet.

In 1912, the first community Christmas tree in the United States was erected in New York City.

Christmas trees generally take six to eight years to mature.

Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states including Hawaii and Alaska.

100,000 people are employed in the Christmas tree industry.

98 percent of all Christmas trees are grown on farms.

More than 1,000,000 acres of land have been planted with Christmas trees.

77 million Christmas trees are planted each year.

On average, over 2,000 Christmas trees are planted per acre.

You should never burn your Christmas tree in the fireplace. It can contribute to creosote buildup.

Other types of trees such as cherry and hawthorns were used as Christmas trees in the past.

Thomas Edison’s assistants came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees.

In 1963, the National Christmas Tree was not lit until December 22nd because of a national 30-day period of mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy.

Teddy Roosevelt banned the Christmas tree from the White House for environmental reasons.

In the first week, a tree in your home will consume as much as a quart of water per day.

Tinsel was once banned by the government. Tinsel contained lead at one time. Now it’s made of plastic.

In 1984, the National Christmas Tree was lit on December 13th with temperatures in the 70s, making it one of the warmest tree lightings in history.

34 to 36 million Christmas trees are produced each year and 95 percent are shipped or sold directly from Christmas tree farms.

California, Oregon, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are the top Christmas tree producing states.

The best-selling trees are Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir and White Pine.

No one can deny that the Christmas tree is a big part of holiday traditions. Every year, families pile into their cars for the annual trip to the Christmas tree farm (or we simply ask Dad to make a trip up to the attic to retrieve our trusty artificial tree) on the day after Thanksgiving. Siblings take a short break from fighting in order to decorate it with Christmas ornaments lovingly crafted and collected through the years. We try to figure out new ways to keep Christmas trees alive longer. We’re constantly cleaning up stray needles. We do everything in our power to keep the cat away from it. There are Christmas songs about it. There are Hallmark movies where they figure prominently. (See Fir Crazy.) The point is, we are obsessed with Christmas trees.

But for something that plays such a big part in our lives for a month or so of every year, how much do you really know about our Christmas trees? How many species can we honestly name? Do you know why firs are maybe a better for your heavy ornaments than, say, a white pine? And do you know why? Lucky for you, we’ve tracked down a slew of species so you can walk into the tree farm a touch more confidently this year.

In the 16th century, Martin Luther became the pioneer of bringing Christmas trees to the house and decorating them. Today, people use several types of trees for this purpose. Fir trees, pine trees, spruce trees, cypress trees, and cedar trees are popular Christmas tree types. People like to decorate the trees with lights, ornaments, sweets, and Christmas gifts.

5. Fir Trees

Douglas Fir trees.

Traditionally, the pagans and Christians used the fig tree during the celebration of winter festivals. The species of fir trees considered best for Christmas purposes include Nordmann Fir, Noble Fir, Fraser Fir, Douglas Fir, Spanish Fir, and Balsam Fir. These types of fir trees are suitable since they have aromatic foliage. They also do not shed many of their needles when they get dry. The Balsam Fir is short, but has dense branches which enable people to decorate it for Christmas. The Spanish Fir is best fit for Christmas when it is still young and has a conical shape. As it matures, it loses its conical shape. Additionally, the Douglas Fir has fine needles and a lovely scent. It can also hold many ornaments and strands of lights. Many years ago, the Germans called the fir trees “Paradise trees.” They hung apples on them to have the picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Today, Christians use the tree as a symbolism of the eternal life they await.

4. Pine Trees

Most pine trees are evergreen and bear corns. They are native to North America. The pines have great aesthetic value not only in every day life, but also during the Christmas season. Pine tree species such as Scotch Pine and Virginia Pine are commonly used as Christmas trees. The reason for this is that they have stiff branches which can hold heavy ornaments. Furthermore, their needles stay green for about four weeks. When the needles dry, they do not fall. Another significant reason why pine trees are great for Christmas tree lovers is that they have aromatic scent. The White Pine may be used during Christmas, but its branches are weak. Thus, it can only hold light decorations.

3. Spruce Trees

People harvest spruce trees during winter for Christmas tree purposes. They like them because of their evergreen nature and conical shape. In fact, most artificial trees today are made in the likeness of the spruce trees. However, they shed their leaves when kept in an indoor warm and dry environment. The most common spruce species for Christmas is the Colorado Blue Spruce. The tree grows to up to six feet and is normally used in landscaping. However, its delightful blue color and cone shape makes it beautiful for Christmas occasions. Another type of spruce for Christmas is the White Spruce. This spruce has very strong branches that people can hang heavy ornaments on. However, the White Spruce has an unpleasant odor and does not hold its needles for long.

2. Cypress Trees

The Leyland Cypress is the species of cypress that people popularly used for Christmas. Since it does not produce sap like pines or fir, the tree is best suited for those with sap allergy. Its leaves are dark green in color, very soft, and have little aroma. They have a beautiful pyramid shape and hold their needles for many weeks after the Christmas holidays. Furthermore, the foliage of the trees differs from one cultivar to the other making them unique. The Leyland Cypress is the most desired type of tree for Christmas by those living in southeastern states of the United States. Besides Leyland Cypress, however, there are also other species which people use for Christmas. They include Arizona Cypress and Blue Pyramid Cypress.

1. Cedar Trees

Cedar trees are also an excellent choice for Christmas trees. The most famous species for this purpose is the Eastern Red Cedar which is native to the southern US. They are preferred to other cedar species because of their piney aroma, natural pyramid crown, and its ease of maintenance. The needles of the red cedar are dark and green in color. They are also shiny and prickly. Another species of cedar is the Deodar or Himalayan Cedar, native to the Himalayas. The tree can also be used as a Christmas tree. The needles of Deodar Cedar are bluish green and short.

What types of trees make the best Christmas trees?

Fir trees, pine trees, spruce trees, cypress trees, and cedar trees are popular Christmas tree types.

Top 5 Fragrant Christmas Trees

Nothing says Christmas quite like a fragrant, real tree. And many families who choose real over artificial will be selecting the perfect one sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, approximately 25-30 million live Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

But which tree makes the perfect Christmas tree? There are many varieties to choose from—35 different species of trees are grown especially for Christmas—and many things to consider: size, shape, needles, branches, fullness, and fragrance. While a Charlie Brown Christmas tree is cute, it’s not what people usually select to make memories during the holiday season.

Although many types of evergreens grow in different regions across the country, here is a list of the five most popular Christmas tree varieties:

Top 5 Most Popular Christmas Tree Varieties

  1. Balsam Fir – The Balsam fir is the most fragrant of the trees, making it the most popular Christmas tree variety. They’re durable and have short, flat, dark green needles. They do dry out quickly so be sure to check their water levels often. Fun Fact: The tree was named for the balsam or resin found in blisters on bark which was used to treat wounds during the Civil War.

    Balsam Fir

  2. Douglas Fir – A very common variety, these trees are favored for their perfect conical shape and fullness. Great for filling big rooms. Their needles are soft and flat with a blunt tip. Best to use lighter-weighted ornaments.
    Fun Fact: The tree was named after botanist David Douglas who studied the tree in the 1800s.

    Douglas Fir Photo By Walter Siegmund, Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3795733

  3. Fraser Fir – Recognizable by their needles, which are dark green on top and silver underneath. The branches, which curve slightly upward, are stiff so they hold ornaments well. And they last a long time — it’s not uncommon for these trees to last as long as 6 weeks, and they retain their needles well. After Balsam Fir, Fraser Firs are especially fragrant.
    Fun Fact: It takes 7—10 years to grow a 6—7 foot Fraser Fir!

    Frasier Fir

  4. Scotch Pine (or Scots Pine) – This tree makes the list because it rarely sheds its needles, and has excellent water retention when cut. A Scotch Pine’s sturdy branches curve upward making it great for holding ornaments. But wear gloves when handling! The needles can be sharp.
    Fun Fact: The Scotch Pine is the most widely-planted pine tree in the U.S.

    Scotch Pine. Photo courtesy of F. D. Richards/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

  5. Colorado Blue Spruce – This evergreen is hard to miss with its beautiful blue hue. It’s a popular Christmas tree because it rarely sheds its needles. But they are sharp, so be careful (but they’re a good pet deterrent!). Stiff branches hold ornaments well and they have a perfect pyramid shape. Consider the tree’s color when selecting decorations.
    Fun Fact: A Blue Spruce is the living Christmas Tree planted on the south lawn of the White House!

    Colorado Blue Spruce

Bonus Fun Fact: In 2019, the tree variety selected for the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City is a Norway Spruce, from the town of Florida, New York. These trees can be identified by their needles which radiate equally in all directions around the branch, like a bristle brush.

Norway Spruce

Which type of Christmas tree is your favorite? Wondering if you should go with a live or fake tree? There are pros and cons to each!

Check out the great story behind this year’s Rockefeller Center tree!

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It’s a cherished Canadian tradition: braving the crisp December air to bring home a fresh-cut Christmas tree. Artificial trees may win out for convenience, but they can’t beat the appeal of a true evergreen. Plus, real Christmas trees are carbon negative, and many trees are recycled as mulch for your garden!

The most popular types of Christmas trees in Canada fall into the pine, fir, or spruce families. We’ll explore what each type has to offer so you can choose the best real Christmas tree for your home!

  1. Scotch Pine

When someone mentions a Christmas tree, you probably picture a Scotch pine (also known as a Scots pine). Tall, triangular, and vividly green, the Scotch pine reigns as the top Christmas tree in Canada.

Part of its popularity is owing to the fact that the Scotch pines hardly sheds any of its long needles, even once it dries out. The strong, curved branches also hold ornaments well. If you can’t decide which type of Christmas tree to choose, this is a safe bet!

  1. Balsam Fir

The Balsam fir grows from Newfoundland to Alberta and everywhere in between. It’s the number one choice of Christmas tree in Quebec, and the official provincial tree of New Brunswick. While the Scotch pine wins the popularity contest, the Balsam fir is definitely the most Canadian Christmas tree!

The balsam fir’s short, flat needles make its slender branches easy to decorate. However, it may have trouble accommodating large or heavy ornaments.

  1. White Spruce

Ever cut your own Christmas tree? Chances are, you bagged a White spruce. This species is popular at cut-your-own tree farms, especially in the north.

The White spruce has thick, heavy branches that are perfect for weightier ornaments. In the right light, its dark green needles take on a lovely shade of blue. However, those needles are known to produce a strong scent when they’re crushed, and not everyone is a fan! We suggest giving them a good sniff before deciding to take it home.

  1. Douglas Fir

The Douglas isn’t a true fir at all — it’s really a type of pine. Regardless, the Douglas fir is a welcome addition to many holiday homes, especially in western Canada. Full and bushy, the Douglas fir is an ideal tree for big, open spaces.

  1. Fraser Fir

Looking for a tree that lasts? The Fraser fir is your pick. Fraser firs are known as one of the longest-lasting species of Christmas trees. In fact, they’re so hardy that Canadian tree farmers ship them all over the world! Once it reaches its destination, the Fraser fir’s dark green-tipped needles and light fragrance are sure to impress.

  1. White Pine

Though not as popular as the Scotch pine, the provincial tree of Ontario can be a beautiful display. The long needles make the White pine difficult to decorate, but they also give it a soft, feathery appearance. White pines are a great choice for those who want a more natural-looking tree.

As for scent, the White pine hardly has one! It’s the best real Christmas tree for people who are sensitive to fragrances.

  1. Noble Fir

Fragrant and full of colour, the Noble fir is the top Christmas tree for making wreaths and garlands. Its branches are stiff enough to hold heavy ornaments, and flat enough to hang strings of lights. Noble firs are the most versatile of the Christmas firs, and an all-around beautiful tree!

  1. Colorado Blue Spruce

The Colorado Blue spruce isn’t your typical Christmas tree. It has sharp needles, a unique fragrance, and a decidedly off-colour name. But no other Christmas tree boasts the natural, silvery shimmer of the Blue spruce. Its blue-grey needles look stunning under the red and green glow of Christmas lights. If you’re looking for something different, this tree could be the one that stands out for you.

Around Your World

Today’s Christmas Trees

From the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry…

Christmas Trees: Past and Present

The road your Christmas tree traveled from the land to your home is probably much different from what you imagine.

Christmas trees, as evergreens brought indoors, may have originated from the northern European celebration of the winter solstice.

How to Select and Care for Your Live Christmas Tree
  1. Select a fresh tree. The needles should be moist and not break when bent with fingers.
  2. Store your tree out of direct sunlight and away from drafts.
  3. Immediately before the tree is brought inside, make a half-inch fresh cut from the trunk and place it in water.
  4. Use a Christmas tree stand that holds a gallon of water.
  5. Check the stand every day for water and keep it full. Never allow the reservoir to become dry.
  6. Keep your tree away from a direct heat source.
  7. Miniature light bulbs are better than large bulbs because they generate less heat.

> At the darkest time of the year, evergreens provide a symbol of the continuation and renewal of life. An evergreen holds its leaves–or needles–for more than one year, so green leaves continue to grow while the oldest leaves die and fall away.

According to legend, northern Europeans used evergreens in their Christmas celebrations as early as the eighth century AD. People used conifers, needle-leafed trees, most commonly, but broadleaf evergreens became holiday symbols in regions where conifers were rare-like holly in England. Today, the tradition of the Christmas, or holiday tree, can be found in most areas of the world.

Until recently, most Christmas trees were cut from local forests. A long trek through the woods to find a good tree was a common rural tradition.

Christmas trees also have been harvested as thinnings from young, planted forests. However, “wild” trees tend to grow irregularly, and even in planted forests only a small fraction of trees may develop into the shape most people consider good for a Christmas tree.

Today, most holiday trees are grown as a specialized crop on farmland. Christmas tree farmers plant particular strains of trees for attractive foliage or other special features.

For good quality trees, weeds, insect pests and diseases must be controlled, and the trees must be sheared for several years to yield a high number of trees with the desired form. It usually takes 7 to 12 years of care to grow a good 7-foot Christmas tree in New York; some trees may take longer.

Balsam Fir

Growing Christmas trees can be a good part-time business or hobby for owners of suitable land, if the grower can provide the skilled care required. Many more trees are planted than are harvested as Christmas trees. Christmas trees increasingly are grown, like other commercial products, as a business to allow tree prices to compete in interstate and international markets, especially in sales to large urban areas. As with other agricultural produce, an advantage of buying from local Christmas tree farms may be less a price savings than the opportunity to honor older traditions by having closer contact with the growth and harvest of your tree.

Selection and Care of Your Christmas Tree

Several tree species from diverse regions are grown as Christmas trees.

Among the longer-needled pine species, the most common is Scots pine, native to many areas of Europe; less common is the white pine, native to New York. The common shorter-needled species include Douglas-fir from various regions of western North America, white spruce from northern U.S. and Canada, Norway spruce from Europe, and the “true firs. ” True firs include our native balsam fir, Fraser fir from the southern Appalachians, and white or concolor fir from the West.

Douglas Fir

People choose a Christmas tree species depending on tradition and individual taste. Each species has a distinctive appearance and fragrance, and some people prefer a tree densely sheared to a conical shape, while others prefer a looser, more natural form.

Species vary in their normal retention of needles after cutting. Most spruce and true firs tend to drop some of their older needles after cutting, while pines tend to hold their older needles well. But all cut Christmas trees in a healthy, fresh condition should hold their outer, current-year needles well. For trees harvested some distance from the market, “freshness” depends on their care after harvest. At temperatures above freezing, a fresh tree should have flexible needles and the distinctive fragrance of the species. It is harder to determine the freshness of trees when outdoor temperatures are below freezing, so the reputation of the seller is important.

When brought inside, a Christmas tree should readily take up water and transpire it through its leaves. To help the process, you should cut at least 1/2- to 1-inch off the base of the tree trunk and, initially, put hot water in the tree holder to remove any sealing pitch. It is important to keep the tree watered at all times because a fresh, well-watered tree will not burn easily. Under favorable conditions, Christmas trees should last inside safely at least a few weeks. When a tree ceases to “drink” water, it should be removed from the house.

All Christmas trees, even species that hold their needles well, are dangerously flammable when dry.

Scots Pine

Environmental Aspects of Christmas Trees

Although Christmas tree growing uses forest tree species, it has become more closely related to other types of farming than to forest growth. New York and other areas have surplus agricultural land. On these lands, tree farming provides an economic means of maintaining some land in an early stage of open conifers between farmland and forest cover. Several wildlife species prefer this “in-between” habitat.

Christmas tree growers, like other farmers, need to be sensitive to potential environmental problems in the use of pesticides and other cultural practices. Also, Christmas trees, especially when grown locally, use less energy from fossil fuels than artificial trees. Artificial trees generally have to be re-used for many years to reduce their environmental costs to near those of natural trees.

Although natural Christmas trees are biodegradable, their disposal can be an environmental problem. People with a suburban or larger yard can reuse their Christmas trees as wildlife brush cover, or cut the

trees up for mulch that will eventually recycle to enrich the soil. Otherwise, by using smaller trees, people may reduce disposal and other environmental costs.

Rooted, “live” trees, briefly brought indoors in pots, are sometimes suggested as an environmental alternative to cut trees. However, the environmental costs of handling a live tree may be more than for a cut tree. And live trees generally have a poor survival rate when transplanted during the winter. It may be wiser to use a cut tree, and buy rooted trees at the optimum planting season in your area.

Grown with sensitivity to environmental concerns and with proper care and watering in your home, today’s Christmas trees will provide much enjoyment through the holiday season, and, as in times past, point the way to a greener spring.


Text prepared by Norman A. Richards, Professor of Silviculture, Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management. Richards has been growing Christmas trees as a hobby-business since 1955. Douglas fir and white spruce photos courtesy of the Ministry of Forests for the Province of British Columbia. The balsam fir photo is courtesy of Weir Tree Farms, Colebrook, NH.

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