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In The Country

Oh, Christmas Tree?

Tim Iverson
Seasonal Naturalist
Cunningham Falls State Park

Ever wonder how tall your Christmas Tree would
grow if you planted it after Christmas?

(12/2014) Christmas is just around the corner and soon sleigh bells will be jingling, Jack Frost will be nipping at your nose, Santa will have a quick layover in town, and the whole world may resemble a marshmallow. Boughs of holly, garlands, and wreaths will deck the halls, but the true centerpiece is the Christmas tree. As we have ourselves a merry little Christmas, silver bells and all, nothing quite captures the essence of the season as evergreens do.

Evergreens, as the name implies, are trees that remain green year round. They will keep their "leaves" or needles in almost all cases, all year, while deciduous trees will shed their leaves in the colder winter months. Evergreens are usually conifer trees, plants, or shrubs, and in some rare cases leafy trees.

In broad general terms trees are broken down into two main categories: coniferous and deciduous. Coniferous trees have needles, and produce cones. Deciduous trees have broad leaves, which die off in cooler temperatures in a process called abscission. Deciduous means "to die off", which is where the name comes from and this usually, coincides with winter and cooler temperatures. During the summer the broad leaves are essential for survival, but in the winter those leaves become a lethal liability. The leaves are a costly source of water loss and consumption, and during the winter months water is hard to come by. To prepare for this deciduous trees will shed their leaves. Conifer needles have less surface area and retain water better than leaves because of a waxy coating and smaller pores, which can allow for year round photosynthesis.

Conifer, or evergreen, trees have a higher density of foliage, which during winter means snow and ice accumulates faster on them. This makes them more susceptible to breakage, especially with the addition of high winds. To offset this problem conifers tend to be more flexible and the cone shape of the tree helps to shed snow easier. The dense foliage also makes them more attractive to animals. Birds, deer, mice, and more eat the foliage and fruit that these trees produce during the winter months. Mice, rabbits, and a few others chew bark for the nutrients stored within.

Historically speaking evergreens have been a part of the winter season for millennia. These plants were brought in and adorned the homes of many ancient peoples across cultures and continents. December 21st and 22nd typically has the fewest daylight hours of the year, and is marked as the winter solstice. Most ancient cultures worshipped the sun as a god, and this solstice symbolized the triumph of life over death as the days would begin to grow longer from this point forward. Evergreens were a symbol of health and virility, and reminded them that green plants would grow and farms and fields would once again produce food. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Celtic druids, Vikings, and Germanic barbarians all had similar traditions.

The contemporary custom of the Christmas tree can be traced back to 16th century Germany. During this period Germans would bring small trees into their home to decorate. Devout Christians adopted this from prior pagan ritual and Christianized it by selecting Christian symbols to place upon the tree. Early decorations were traditionally food items, such as apples or nuts. Apples represented the apple from the Adam and Eve creation story. The top of the tree is usually festooned with either an angel, representing the angel Gabriel, or a star, which represents the star of Bethlehem.

The tradition of decorating Christmas trees spread, and was fairly common by the 1800’s. In early America things had progressed slower due to heavy puritan influence. In 1659 the state of Massachusetts banned any form of celebrating the Christmas holiday, with the exception a church service, and provided strict penalties for violation of this law. By the mid 19th century there had been a huge influx of German and Irish immigrants and the political and cultural influence of puritans waned. Many Americans were still unsure or uninterested in this Christmas custom, but in 1846 the English Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert (of Germany) were pictured in an English newspaper surrounded by their children standing next to a Christmas tree. This picture made the custom highly fashionable with English and American political elites and upper class citizens. It wasn’t long until the Christmas tree became commonplace in nearly every English and American home and town square.

Christmas trees have proven to be a huge market, as well. There are approximately 15,000 farms that produce 33 million trees in America every year. Americans spend on average 1.5 billion on Christmas trees every year. Despite the economic benefit, some have argued against the ecological impact this industry takes. Most Christmas trees are commercially farmed, harvested, and shipped off across hundreds of miles to surrounding areas and states. While a real tree is carbon neutral, it is estimated that it is responsible for approximately 7lbs of carbon dioxide per tree via transit activities. An artificial tree is responsible for approximately 106lbs of carbon per tree, but can be used over many years. Artificial trees are typically made of PVC, but have often been found to be coated in paint with traces of lead in it (usually originating from China). After 9 years these lead based paints have been shown to break down and can cause health risks to vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or small children, due to lead contamination. One research study showed that a consumer would have to use an artificial tree for up to 20 years before it had a smaller environmental impact than a natural tree.

Natural trees take about 7 years of growing before they reach maturity and are ready to be harvested. During this time they produce oxygen and provide great habitat for wildlife. After Christmas however they are often thrown away. Better ways to reduce impact while celebrating the Christmas season is to ensure that you properly recycle your tree. Many counties, including Frederick, have designated drop off locations and will turn trees into mulch for parks, gardens, public space, and trails. A new idea rising in popularity is to use living trees as a Christmas tree. Select or purchase a small tree, ball the roots, and then set it in a pot inside. After the Christmas holiday is over you can plant your tree in your yard or another location and it can still provide habitat and other positive environmental contributions to the ecosystem.

When the lights on the tree glow as bright as Rudolph’s nose remember you’re witnessing a tradition long held and venerated by our ancestors. We remind ourselves of all the good things of that have come to pass or have not yet. Roast some chestnuts, dream of a white Christmas, and baby, when it’s cold outside rock around that Christmas tree.

Read other articles by Ranger Tim Iverson