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The Christmas Tree Tradition

At this festive time it seems appropriate to write about the tradition of the Christmas tree. We delve into the theories, ideas and origins of this most iconic of traditions and provide a quick guide to the most popular tree varieties.

It is generally accepted that when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria in 1840 he brought with him from Germany the tradition of a decorated tree in the house at Christmas. Theories abound as to how this originated. One story claims that in approximately 723 AD an English missionary, St Boniface, was travelling in Germany where he encountered pagans in a forest preparing a sacrifice beneath an oak tree dedicated to their god Thor. Boniface took an axe to the tree to thwart the ritual. When he was not struck down in retribution by Thor, he explained that a nearby fir tree was in fact the holy tree. However, other narratives report that a fir tree grew on the site of the felled oak. Though doubts about the beginning will always remain, by the Middle Ages evergreen trees were an established part of German Christmas festivities. Usually decorated with apples (later replaced by shiny balls) and known as paradise trees, they represented the Garden of Eden and were displayed in homes on 24th December, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They gradually evolved into “Christmas” trees and by the 19th century were a firmly established and widespread tradition. As German emigrants settled around the world, they took the tradition with them. Unsurprisingly, in ancient non-Christian cultures, plants that held foliage through the snow and ice of winter were symbolic of survival, regeneration and hope. The timing of the winter solstice so close to Christmas has meant that parallel traditions of bringing evergreen foliage into the home to celebrate the solstice have blurred into the Christian festivities.

At home in Germany, a shortage of accessible trees to harvest developed, and alternatives were invented. In the 1880s goose feather trees became popular. In the 1930s an enterprising manufacturer of toilet brushes used surplus bristles to create artificial trees, and though these were initially popular, they were soon overtaken by aluminium and plastic versions. Most of the artificial trees sold today are faux trees, aiming to look as natural as possible. However, stylised metal or coloured trees are becoming more widely chosen, with black and pink currently the most popular colours.

Christmas is a rich spawning ground for new traditions, some domestic, some political, some generational. Most families and households have their own ways of celebrating Christmas, and their own ways of placing and decorating a tree. These habits tend to be carried on by subsequent generations. Starting in 1947, and every subsequent year, Norway has given London a Christmas tree in recognition of the help and support given during the Second World War. The tree is harvested from the forests surrounding Oslo and erected in Trafalgar Square. In a contemporary trend, primary aged children may expect to see an elf on a shelf in their house on 1st December. This elf moves every night to a different position in the house, and reports back to Santa Claus on the behaviour of the children. The children are probably blissfully unaware that they are the first generation to experience this “tradition”. Another modern tradition is the decoration of the White House, designed by the First Lady. This started as an official White House tree in the blue room, but has become something of an extravaganza depending on the taste of the current president’s wife, and is frequently the cause of much discussion.

The dilemma of choosing between a real or artificial Christmas trees arises every year. The vast majority of artificial trees are made in China of mixed materials, mostly plastic and metal, and are not recyclable so end up in landfill. In addition, transport costs add further to their carbon footprint. The Carbon Trust estimates that a two-metre artificial tree has a carbon footprint more than ten times that of a real tree which is burned after Christmas. A real tree that is chipped or burned will release the carbon dioxide it stored while it was growing so there is no net increase. A tree consigned to landfill will decompose releasing methane, 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The best option in terms of carbon emission is a pot-grown tree used every year, with no transport costs, but this does not take into account the fun and excitement of choosing your tree and taking it home. Christmas trees are grown as a crop to be harvested, and often on sites which are unsuitable for arable or other agricultural purposes. For every tree harvested, growers usually plant two or three replacements. Plantations can be combined with sheep rearing, notably using the Shropshire. This breed of sheep was developed in the early 1800s and is known as a tri-purpose breed because it is used for meat, wool and is tree-friendly and can be allowed to graze safely in conifer plantations and orchards without damaging the trees.

Today, between 7 and 8 million real Christmas trees are sold annually in the UK (25-30million in the US). If you are buying a real tree, look for one that is freshly cut and sourced as locally as possible. Trees being sold cheaply may have been cut many weeks earlier in autumn, stacked and stored until they can be sold. These trees may be cheaper but they will have dried out and are likely to drop their needles as soon as they come into a heated home. A fresh tree should have bendy, springy branches and needles that do no break or drop when your run your hand along the branch. Ideally, the first thing you should do when getting your tree home is place it in a bucket of water. If you can, cut off the bottom inch of the trunk, at a slight slant, before bringing it indoors. This is because the tree’s sap will have acted to heal the cut made at harvesting and a fresh cut will aid water absorption, enhance the tree’s indoor life and reduce needle drop. A slanted cut will expose a larger surface area for water absorption in the container.

The most popular tree varieties are:

Norway Spruce (Picea abies). This used to be the only variety available, and was probably the one most of us grew up with. It has small, sharp dark green needles, a good fragrance and a strong conical shape. For indoor use this variety is best purchased nearer to Christmas and kept well watered for better needle retention.

Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmanniana) often referred to as a “non-drop”. This is now the most popular Christmas tree in the UK because of its excellent needle retention, strong symmetrical branches and soft needles.

Noble Fir (Abies procera) is becoming increasingly popular. A very elegant Christmas tree with bluish-green needles, well spaced branches which are strong enough to support heavy ornaments. It has a fresh fragrance and good needle retention.