A Brief (And Jaded) History of Christmas Trees

by: Christopher Rockwell

An exploration of the annual mass genocide of evergreens…

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It is rumored that the use of evergreen trees to celebrate the winter seasons goes back to the days prior to the birth of Christ. As someone who is suspicious of this rumor, and of the legitimacy of the the birth of the Christian savior in general, I tend to rely on the more certain facts about Christmas trees. Like the fact that the first decorated Christmas tree hails from Riga, Latvia in the early 20th century. Or the verified case where many years later, in 1882, Thomas Edison’s assistant, a man named Edward Johnson, came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees. With that one ingenious idea, the Christmas tree landscape was changed, and just a few years later, in 1890, Christmas tree lights began to be mass produced for retail. One can only imagine that in the infancy of this great leap forward for humankind, that a fire or two may have been ignited upon a family Christmas tree. But bear in mind that in the journey of all things worthy, there will be sacrifices.

Moving beyond the historical advances of in-home holiday trees, which I glossed over to get to the heart of the matter, what is so clearly prevalent this time of year is a warm and enduring nostalgia for those who grew up with Christmas trees. Who amongst us who has piled into the back of the family station wagon for a trip to pick out the season’s holiday stalwart doesn’t think fondly back upon that day? Who can forget the hours spent decorating the tree with the family? Or the hours gathered around that tree sharing gifts, stories, and cinnamon-scented nog? Or even just the warm, luminous glow radiating off the tree in the wee hours of the night, guiding one’s way on the tip-toe journey to the fridge for holiday leftovers? The moments spent within a Christmas tree’s presence are some of the best days of childhood. And in that spirit, a Christmas tree stands as a symbol of happiness, and of the boundlessness of youth.

But, as I have matured and moved beyond my youth, I have begun to see these trees – stricken down from their natural environment far too young – in a different light. One that is far more harsh and unnerving. Sitting in my living room this season, I cannot help but look at that tree in its most basic and realistic characterization – dying. Akin to hauling a bleeding and critically injured human into your home to put on display throughout the holiday season, Christmas trees are, literally, once vibrant beings that have been cut off from their essential nutrients to slowly, but surely, perish. A once photosynthesizing, respiring, and transpiring tree absorbing carbon dioxide and other harmful gases while releasing oxygen at a steady clip into the atmosphere, bludgeoned with an axe for our holiday amusement. It’s disturbing. It’s agitating and unacceptable.

It is here, in this argument against the annual genocide of evergreens around the world, where I feel it necessary to mention an obvious alternative, fake trees. And in as little words as possible, let me go ahead and put that debate to bed right quick – Oh Hell No! Sure, there is something convenient, and possible responsible, about reusing the same tree annually, but if I am going the artificial route, I would just as soon raise a Festivus pole in my living room rather than place gifts beneath a blatantly fake tree. It just isn’t going to happen. Standing firmly against the idea of an artificial tree isn’t necessarily anti-environment either. The materials to create the tree, the production means, and shipping materials must all be considered. And while a fake Christmas tree might last for eight to ten years in your home, it will last centuries in a landfill.

So, is growing Christmas trees on Christmas tree farms truly that bad? Let’s find out, at least for the sake of this withering tree staring at me while it fades into oblivion.

Prepare yourself for an onslaught of statistics but trust me, it’s worth it!….

In 2012, twenty-four million farm-grown1 Christmas trees were purchased in the United States. The real market value of these trees is well over one billion dollars. Undoubtedly with population growth, those numbers have swollen in the last few years, so we are talking big business here. But big business doesn’t always mean bad business, especially when applied to the Christmas tree industry. In that same year, 2012, Christmas tree farms put back into the ground over forty-six million seedlings, ensuring the future of their industry, and the longevity of the crop.

It takes about six to ten years for a seedling to develop into a mature tree under favorable conditions. In this time the Scotch pines, Douglas Firs, Noble Firs, Fraser Firs, Balsam Pines, Virginia Pines, and White Pines that are to be used for Christmas trees, are contributing in countless ways to the ecosystem about them. Growing Christmas trees provide habitat for wildlife. They remove dust and pollen (and those other harmful gases we spoke of earlier) from the air, especially during the young trees’ period of vigorous growth. And they provide oxygen. Glorious, delicious oxygen.

In the United States alone, 350,000 acres are used for the production of Christmas trees,2, and each acre provides the daily oxygen requirements for up to eighteen people (or so, it’s hard to truly quantify, but real!). In this way, Christmas trees farms are not only harmless, but essential. And as long as they are harvested using best management practices that ensure the regenerative potential of the land, this process of cutting and plating can go on for generations to come.

When the bottom of the punch bowl is reached, and your home has become awash in shredded packaging and wrappers, a Christmas tree’s journey has just begun. For when the tree is hauled to the curb, it will most likely be taken to a composting facility3. Here it will be turned into nutrient-rich soil, taking all that carbon the tree has sequestered from the atmosphere and putting it right back into the Earth. But that is only one example of the numerous uses for your Christmas tree once it has left your living room. It can also be recycled to make sand and soil erosion barriers, placed in ponds for fish shelter, or even used to restore housing structures for wildlife that have been destroyed through development.

Add to all this the fact that well over 100,000 people are employed full or part-time in the Christmas tree industry, and it becomes abundantly clear that I need to stuff my sorries, along with my worries, in a sack. Finding myself mourning the loss of Christmas tree’s life this season surely began to dull my satisfaction of having a beautiful evergreen in home for the month of December, but a simple examination of the process quells these concerns. So as the evergreen in your home begins to drop its needles, to brown, and begins its journey to that large and glorious tree farm in the sky – take a moment to thank it for all it has done. All it will do. For its job here is done. And done well. They were a part of the family for the month they lived with you. And what a month it was!

  1. Ninety-eight percent of all Christmas trees are grown on farms, while only 2% are cut from the wild. []
  2. There are about 15,000 tree farms in The U.S., in all fifty states. []
  3. Ninety-three percent of Christmas tree consumers recycle their tree in community recycling programs or their garden or backyard. []

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