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Oh Christmas Tree!

  • Martha Proctor

    Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, How lovely are thy branches ...


    So go the lyrics of “Oh Tannenbaum” or its English version, “Oh Christmas Tree,” a Christmas carol of German origin written in 1550.   In Germany and northern Europe, the practice of decorating coniferous trees originated in pagan times, when the trees were seen to represent the fertility of the nature gods.   A 1570 reference in a German guild chronicle reported that a small fir tree was decorated with apples, dates, nuts, pretzels, and paper flowers at Christmas for the benefit of children and family members of the guild. Even earlier historical accounts suggest that Saint Boniface attempted to Christianize indigenous Germanic tribes by introducing the idea of the trinity using cone-shaped evergreen trees because of their triangular appearance. Others trace the origin of the Christmas tree to a period before the Christian era. Egyptians, Romans and early Scandinavians worshiped and treasured evergreens in their celebration of the Winter Solstice.
    Through its history, the Christmas tree has endured its share of controversy, mainly involving the secular and non-secular uses of the tree and the pagan origins of the custom. By the early 18th century, the custom of decorating Christmas trees became common in upper Rhineland towns, but the practice did not spread to rural areas for a long time, as it was regarded as a Protestant custom by the Catholic majority. Tree decoration was adopted into Christian practice after the Church set December 25 as the birth of Christ, thereby supplanting the pagan celebration of the solstice. After lights were accepted as part of the decorations, the Christmas tree began to be used more commonly throughout Germany. It is thought that at the time of the American Revolution, the custom was introduced to the United States by Hessian troops and German immigrants.
    The custom was introduced to Britain by King George III’s German Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. But the practice didn’t become popular until images of Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, celebrating Christmas around their Christmas tree, appeared in English magazines. These pictures of the royal family helped popularize the Christmas tree in Britain and among the Anglophile American upper class. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree and 20 years later, the custom was almost universal.   Initially popular in Christian homes, the “Hanukkah bush” decorated with Jewish decorations became accepted by those of the Jewish faith who wanted to blend into their Christian environment.
    The Christmas tree market was born in 1851 when a Catskill farmer hauled two ox sleds of evergreens to New York City and sold them all. Christmas tree farms sprang up during the depression when nurserymen faced bankruptcy.   Today, almost all Christmas trees in the United States are grown on Christmas tree farms. After ten years of growth, trees are cut down for sale; new trees are planted between January and May. In 2007 an estimated 40-45 million trees were planted in North America. An estimated 446 million trees are being grown on farms in the U.S. Six species account for approximately 90% of the nation’s Christmas tree trade. Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) ranks first, comprising about 40% of the market; Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is next with 35% of the market. Other big sellers are noble fir (Abies procera), white pine (Pinus strobus), balsam fir (Abies balsamea), Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), and white spruce (Picea glauca).   An acre of Christmas trees grown on a farm that does not use pesticides provides for the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people and habitat for wildlife. In 2006, 28.3 million real Christmas trees were sold in the United States at a retail value of $1.2 billion; real trees outsell artificial trees by a 3:1 margin.
    A few hints to keep your Christmas tree at its best during the holidays—
    -if you don’t plan to put the tree up immediately, store it in an unheated spot out of the wind and cold. Make a fresh 1" cut on the end of the tree and place the tree in a bucket of water
    -when the tree is set up, make another 1" cut and place the tree in a sturdy stand that holds at least 1 gallon of water, or 1 quart of water for every inch of the trunk’s diameter
    -keep the water level at the base of the tree. If the base dries out, resin will form over the cut end and the tree will dry out quickly as it won’t be able to absorb water. Plain water is best—other additives, e.g., aspirin, are not helpful. In the first week, a tree inside your home will consume as much as a quart of water a day.