Thousands of years ago, evergreen trees were symbols of life during winter, when other vegetation existed only in stark, brown bareness and conifers were still fresh and fragrant.
Although a symbol of Christmas today, evergreens were considered winter’s treasures long before the Christian era. The ancient Romans and Greeks decorated their homes and temples with wreaths and garlands, especially during holidays and celebrations like December’s winter solstice.
Those who live in colder climes brought boughs indoors to enjoy their clean, fresh smell. And some pre-Christian cultures even believed evergreens could ward off illness, others that they held the promise for successful planting and abundant harvests.
But it wasn’t until the 16th century that evergreens assumed their official role in Western civilization’s beloved winter holiday. It was in Riga, Latvia, that the first documented Christmas tree found its way to the town square for festivity.
And although legend may give credit to St. Boniface for bringing the first fir tree indoors during an eighth-century Christmas, it was 16th-century German Christians who are awarded the distinction of bringing the first “tannenbaum” — German for fir tree — inside their homes for the holiday.
Centuries later, in 1841, another German, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, brought his homeland’s tradition of the tannenbaum into England’s Windsor Castle. It wouldn’t be long before the British royal family’s new custom spread across the United Kingdom and eventually the United States.
Today’s Christmas tree
In New England, it’s fir trees that most favor when buying a Christmas tree, according to both Tim Lamprey, owner of Salisbury’s Harbor Garden Center, and Freeman Condon, owner of Beach Plum Farms Garden Centers in Salisbury and Newburyport.
“Balsam firs have that traditional Christmas tree smell for most people,” Lamprey said. “But Fraser firs are gaining in popularity. Frasers are known for holding their needles longer, and the needles have a silvery hue underneath that many think reflects the lights better.”
“It’s true that the balsam fir’s fragrance is a big part of what many cherish as the smell of Christmas,” Condon said. “Along with holding their needles longer, Frasers are favored by many because their branches can better deal with heavy ornaments. Frasers still smell nice, but their smell just isn’t as strong as the balsam.”
The Scotch pine, so popular a few decades ago, has fallen out of vogue, Lamprey and Condon said.
“Scotch pine are grown around here, and they were popular for people who wanted to cut their own Christmas tree,” Condon said. “But few people ask us for them. They’re almost too difficult to decorate because their needles are so sharp.”
At both businesses this year, the average seller is a 6- to 7-foot tree costing about $50. For Condon, it’s a premium Fraser; for Lamprey, Frasers and balsams are running neck and neck.
“I remember when I was a kid, trees were costing $1 a foot,” Condon said. “Today, they can run as high as $10 a foot.”
A quick look around the area finds that live trees run from about $20 and up, with price depending on the quality of the tree and its height.
Christmas trees are graded, Lamprey said. There’s the premium cut, which is “perfect in every way,” he said, then there’s the No. 1, which has a bare spot “that you can hide in a corner,” Lamprey said. And there’s a No. 2, which can have multiple bare areas, he said.
And, yes, there are people who look for a significantly challenged tree, affectionately known as the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. They want it for all the right reasons, Lamprey said.
“We always have two or three people every year who are looking for a Charlie Brown tree,” Lamprey said. “It’s usually lopsided, with a lot of bare spots. They want to give it a good home. I can appreciate that.”
Making the purchase
With such a huge market in North America each winter, Christmas tree farming is big business. Pennsylvania and Michigan are the largest producers of Christmas trees in the United States, Condon said. In New England, Maine cuts its share of the holiday favorite, as do some small farms in New Hampshire, Lamprey said.
But both men purchase trees grown, nurtured and cut in Canada.
“The Christmas tree farmers really know how to shear trees these days,” Lamprey said. “Proper shearing produces tight trees, with lots of branches close together. And it produces more perfectly shaped trees.”
The freshness of a tree depends on when it was cut at the farm for transport. Prematurely cut trees end up drying out, resulting in a short life in warm living rooms because needles start to fall quickly after purchase.
“You want to cut after two or three really hard frosts because that’s what sets the needles,” Condon said. “Balsams and Frasers aren’t native here because they need a cooler summer than we have. That’s why they do well in Canada.”
One way to judge a tree’s freshness is to run a hand up a branch and analyze the needles that come off. If they snap in half when bent, they’re dry, but if the needles are pliant, fold over without snapping and give off a nice smell, chances are the tree is fresh.
While some arrive and find their evergreen soul mates in five minutes, others need longer, like two or three hours. And then there are those annual customers who are known to be so picky that nursery owners wince when they see them arrive in the parking lot.
“Although she was very loyal and came all the way over to buy her tree here, my aunt was one of those people I hated to see show up,” Condon said, chuckling. “You just couldn’t please her. She was on a quest. She’d spend hours here trying to find the perfect tree.”
Once the tree is purchased, cutting at least an inch off the bottom of the trunk is critical to open up the capillaries that will allow water to be drawn up. Some people cut the tree once it’s home, Lamprey said, while others want the nursery to make the cut.
“This year, one woman brought a wet cloth to wrap around it after we cut it, then she put a plastic bag over it,” Lamprey said. “She read it would keep the cut from drying out on the way home. I thought that was a pretty good idea.”
Once cut and home, immediately put the tree in a stand deep enough to hold at least a gallon of water, Lamprey said, then keep checking it.
“The first day or so, it’s really going to drink up a lot of water,” Lamprey said. “So you want to check the water level at least twice a day. If the water level drops below the cut line, the capillaries are going to close up again and the tree will dry out. And nobody wants to take a decorated tree out of its stand to cut it again.”
Placing the tree in a cool room helps it live longer. Putting it in a room with a wood stove or near a roaring fireplace might make for a romantic picture, but the heat will toast the tree up nicely, leading to it drying out quickly.
Check lights and wiring before putting them on the tree, as cracked wire can be a safety hazard, Lamprey said. He also recommends staying away from large Christmas tree lights, since they can get hot and catch on fire. LED or small lights are safer and better for tree longevity, he said. And never leave the lights on when nobody is home.
“We ask a lot of our Christmas trees,” Condon said. “We take them out of the wild and put them into a hostile, warm, domestic environment.”