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Garden Guru: Christmas trees (real ones) have tradition, lore

By John Porter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Perhaps the most widespread symbol of the celebration of the Christmas holidays is the Christmas tree. Storied with lore, both ancient and modern, the Christmas tree finds itself in homes, stores, offices, churches and public squares.

How did an evergreen tree become the center of attention for a religious holiday? And if you have a real one, how do you take care of it?

Christmas tree history

Most authorities agree that the celebration of evergreen trees is a pre-Christian notion that was incorporated into the Christmas holiday. Evidence suggests that cultures ranging from ancient Egypt to China had sacred rituals and holidays celebrating evergreen trees.

The Christmas tree most likely comes to us from ancient pagan European celebrations. These customs likely blended into the Christmas celebration both because of convenience (the festivals were at the time of the winter solstice) and as a tool to gain new converts to the early church.

Well before the Christmas tree, folks in Poland were decorating evergreen branches hung from the ceiling during the winter festival of Koliada, which eventually was incorporated into Christmas. The branch was believed to guarantee a good harvest in the next year.

The hanging branch was replaced with the Christmas tree, which has its origins in 15th-century Germany. It gained more popularity after the Protestant Reformation in Germany, and became a staple of Protestant German Christmas celebrations.

Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, is believed to be the first to light the tree using candles. (I'm sure we have Mr. Luther to blame for many burned-down houses.)

The Christmas tree didn't go beyond the bounds of the Rhine Valley until the 17th century, when it started to spread throughout Europe.

Real vs. artificial

Now to modern day, when 25 million real Christmas trees and 10 million artificial trees are purchased each year. Most of the real trees sold are cut, but it is possible to buy one with the roots still attached for planting later. There are some disease issues with Christmas trees this year, thanks to a blight resulting from our wet summer, but there isn't a projected shortage of trees. Of course, I'm going to advocate for a real Christmas tree, and there are a number of reasons why.

  • Real trees are more environmentally friendly. After use, these trees can be recycled into compost, used as artificial reefs in lakes, shredded for mulch and more. Artificial trees end up in the landfill when they are done. There is also safety concern about some of the materials used to make the fake trees. Most artificial trees are also shipped all the way from China.
  • Real trees support farmers and producers both nationally and locally. The website PickYourOwnChristmasTree.org maintains a list of local Christmas tree farms. Here in Kanawha County, my buddy Bob Whipkey has a tree farm in Big Chimney where you can select and cut your own tree; contact the farm at 304-965-0375. You can also find trees at the Capitol Market and other local tree stands.
  • Real trees just feel more ... Christmassy. Well, to me, anyway. I don't usually have a tree in the house, but I do decorate with all live evergreen garlands.
  • Of course, there are reasons why people use artificial trees over real ones.

  • The convenience. There is a certain amount of care required for a real tree to keep it healthy and safe throughout the holiday.
  • Allergies. Most people are allergic not to the trees or their pollen, but to the ambient pollen, mold and dust that collects on the trees over the years. It's rare to have an allergy to the sap or fragrance of the tree. To cut down on allergies, rinse trees with water outside, or, for small trees, in the shower.
  • Many people have turned Christmas into a lengthy season, instead of a holiday, and the short lifespan of a real tree doesn't lend itself to months-long celebration. Many traditional celebrations center on putting up the tree around Christmas Eve, and leaving it up until Jan. 6, which is the Feast of Epiphany, and which encompasses the 12 days of Christmas (yes, technically, Christmas is 12 days long).
  • Caring for a real tree

    If you do have a real tree for your celebration, there are some maintenance tips that you should carefully follow.

  • When selecting a cut tree, make sure it is not discolored or yellowing. You should give it a little bounce on the ground to make sure there aren't a lot of needles falling off. Both are signs that the tree might be past its prime.
  • When you get the tree home, cut the bottom half-inch off of the bottom to allow the tree to take up water easier. The cut should be perpendicular to the trunk, not at an angle. Sometimes this can be done at the place you buy it (you have six to eight hours to get it to water).
  • Use a reservoir stand filled with fresh, clean, unadulterated water. The lore of adding ingredients like aspirin, bleach, corn syrup and other things to the water are way overblown and can in some cases reduce the longevity of the tree (they can damage or clog the stem). Your tree will need about 1 quart of water per inch of trunk per day.
  • Keep the tree away from major sources of heat and open flames. It's also a good idea to keep the room cool to reduce evaporation.
  • Evaluate this column

    Every year at this time, I sit down to reflect upon my work and to write it up for our faculty promotion and tenure files that every WVU Extension agent has to write. As part of this process, I would like to know what you think about the articles I write and what impact they have. So this week, take a moment to visit http://kanawha.ext.wvu.edu/agriculture/evaluate and complete a short survey. This will help me to see the impact of this column and to guide me in the coming year.

    John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.


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