Every year large evergreens invade our homes during the month of December. The Christmas tree is a long standing tradition around the world but what do we actually know about this family favourite?…
Traditionally the Christmas tree is an evergreen coniferous tree which is cut and brought into the house. Today it is the fir (Abies), which has the benefit of not shedding its needles when they dry out, as well as retaining good foliage colour and scent. The tree is then decorated with lights and decorations and a star or angel is placed on the top to symbolise the star of Bethlehem or a host of angels from the Christian Nativity.
History and Traditions
Despite being associated with the Christian festival it has also been claimed that the Christmas tree originated in Germany. Germanic tribes lighted trees (Tannenbaum) and celebrated the fest of light (Lichtfest) around the shortest day of the year, December 21. The Christmas tree is dated to 16th century Germany, and it was popularised across the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In Britain, the Christmas tree was originally introduced by George III’s Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz but the custom did not spread much beyond the royal family at that time. As a child, Queen Victoria, was familiar with the custom of having a Christmas tree. After her marriage to her German cousin, Prince Albert, the custom became even more widespread. Patriotic prints of the British royal family and their Christmas celebrations helped popularise the Christmas tree in Britain and among the Anglophile American upper class.
Traditionally, Christmas trees were not brought in and decorated until Christmas Eve and then removed the day after twelfth night. To have a tree up before or after these dates was considered bad luck. Modern commercialisation of Christmas has resulted in trees being put up much earlier.
The Environmental Impact of Christmas
In the past, Christmas trees were often harvested from wild forests, but now almost all are commercially grown on tree farms. Some trees are sold live with roots and soil, often from a nursery, to be planted later outdoors and enjoyed (and often decorated) for years or decades. However, the combination of root loss on digging, and the indoor environment of high temperature and low humidity are very detrimental to the tree’s health, and the survival rate of these trees is low.
If you do chose a live tree (which we hope you do) then these trees must be kept inside only for a few days, as the warmth will bring them out of dormancy, leaving them little protection when put back outside into the midwinter cold in most areas.
The life cycle of a Christmas tree from the seed to a 2-metre (7 ft) tree takes, depending on species and treatment in cultivation, between 8 and 12 years. First, the seed is extracted from cones harvested from older trees. These seeds are then usually grown in nurseries and then sold to Christmas tree farms at an age of 3-4 years. The remaining development of the tree greatly depends on the climate, soil quality, as well as the cultivation and care provided by the Christmas tree farmer.
Live trees are typically grown as a crop and replanted in rotation after cutting, often providing suitable habitat for wildlife. In some cases management of Christmas tree crops can result in poor habitat since it involves heavy input of pesticides.
Each year, 33 to 36 million Christmas trees are produced in America, and 50 to 60 million are produced in Europe. In 1998, there were about 15,000 growers in America (a third of them “choose and cut” farms). In that same year, it was estimated that Americans spent $1.5 billion on Christmas trees.
Sadly, artificial trees have become increasingly popular, as they are considered more convenient, cleaner, and (if used for several years) less expensive than real trees. But artificial trees are usually made out of non-biodegradable PVC, polyethylene, or a combination of the two, ending up in landfills for thousands of years.
Real trees are a much better way to go, use potted ones if you can (so you can re-use them year after year) if not please remember to recycle your tree after 12th night.
And (for double green points) why not plant a tree next spring to replace the one that was cut down? If you do… send us a picture and we’ll put it on the blog.