It’s that time of year again, when our houses are fragrant with the lovely, spicy smell of fresh Christmas tree pine needles and the trees’ famously festive scented resin.
Christmas tree facts
Because we love all things wood, we thought it’d be fun to take a look at Christmas trees, where the tradition hails from, which tree species are the most popular, how to look after your Xmas tree and how to dispose of it responsibly.
Xmas tree history
Roll back time and you’ll find a series of fascinating stories about the ancient origins of the Christmas tree. It has been traced back to pre-Christian times, but according to Encyclopaedia Britannica:
“The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolise eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”
The practice is also thought to have roots in the Tree of Paradise mystery plays, produced on Christmas eve, in many countries the day the Christian bible’s Adam and Eve are commemorated. A tree was decorated with apples, representing the ‘forbidden fruit’ and wafers which represented the ‘Eucharist’.
The tradition ultimately arrived in Britain from Germany, where its history can be traced as far back as the 1400s. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband, was instrumental in bringing it over here, where the fashion spread like wildfire through the upper classes before eventually filtering down to ordinary folk. The trees were typically decorated with edible things like apples and nuts. In the 1700s candles came to the fore, a beautiful but highly dangerous practice that stopped as soon as electricity came on the scene.
Today’s Christmas tree is usually a feast of bright, shiny bling smothered in colourful glass and plastic baubles, tinsel, LED lights and all manner of frippery. It’s an oddity, a bit of an anomaly. But it forms an essential part of the modern Xmas tradition, combining the ancient practice of winter solstice feasting with shopping, socialising, relaxation and a smattering of religious significance. Whatever it’s about, whatever it signifies, it simply shouts ‘Christmas!’.
Christmas tree shopping advice
These days the most common trees for Xmas decoration are conifers, namely the spruce, pine and fir. The most popular is the Norway Spruce, with its classic pyramid shape and pine scent, but the lovely Blue Spruce is gaining popularity because of its lovely blue-green colour.
The Nordmann Fir is also increasingly sought out because of its soft, shiny leaves in a wonderful deep green. It also holds its needles much better than many species. If you have a small space, the little Fraser Fir might be perfect, and has the most delicious scent.
Xmas tree alternatives
If, like a growing number of people, you’d rather not kill a tree just because it’s Christmas, there are some funky and creative alternatives:
- Find a suitable tree branch, spray or paint it white, silver or gold, set it in a plant pot full of earth or stones and decorate it
- Decorate a large house plant
- Buy a faux tree – there are some beautiful LED trees around and some of the fake ones with needles are so clever they’re almost indistinguishable from the real deal
- Decorate a bush in your garden instead of having a tree indoors. Plastic and glass baubles survive perfectly well outdoors and if you’re lucky, your plastic ones will change colour in very cold weather, leaving you with subtly beautiful decorations unlike anyone else’s (as I discovered by accident a couple of years ago, to my surprise and delight!)
Tips for Christmas tree care
More and more of us are buying pot-grown live trees with roots, which we can plant out in the garden after the festivities. If you want to buy a living tree for indoors make sure you water it regularly, keep it away from heat sources like radiators and fires and use cool LED tree lights instead of ordinary lights, which can get very hot.
The best cut trees are freshly cut when you buy them, but if you don’t know when yours was cut you can give it a boost by keeping it outdoors for a day or two standing in a bucket of water. You can enhance its water uptake even more and make it even happier by cutting a couple of centimetres off the bottom of the trunk. But do it manually – when you use power tools, which get hot, you risk sealing the stump with hot sap, which means the tree won’t be able to absorb water and will die off pretty fast.
Both cut and pot-grown Xmas trees will need a couple of litres of water every day. It keeps the tree healthier and also stops the needles dropping off quite so quickly.
- Avoid buying a tree whose needles are already browning or dropping off
- Stroke the tree gently. If the needles drop off at your touch, find a fresher one to buy
- Stand your tree, whether it’s live or cut, away from fires and radiators
- Never leave your tree without water for more than eight hours
- When the tree is first put in position, it’ll need a lot of water to drink – as much as 4 litres on the first day
- Water it daily with roughly 1 litre of water for each inch of trunk diameter
- Some people add an aspirin to the water to help keep it fresh, but it’s best to give the tree new water every day
- Check regularly in case any sticky resin drips out of the trunk – it’s hellishly difficult to get off carpet and furnishings
- If your tree gets tired and dry-looking, give it a boost with some fresh water and cut an extra inch off the base to help it drink freely
Christmas tree recycling
If you have space in your garden you can stand the tree somewhere out of sight and let it gently rot down. It’ll provide an excellent home for all sorts of insects, which in turn provide a handy food source for various small mammals and birds.
If you don’t have enough room to stand your old tree in a corner and let it rot, you could always saw it into smaller sections, pile them up behind or under a plant and leave them to decay that way.
If you don’t have room to recycle your tree yourself in your garden, most decent-sized towns have a Christmas tree recycling point or two. Many of them turn the trees into sawdust for composting rather than just throwing them away.
In warmer countries than ours, people throw their used Xmas trees into lakes and rivers where they make splendid homes for fish and other water creatures before rotting down naturally. It’s best not to do that in Britain, where wilderness is rare and chucking stuff randomly into lakes and rivers without permission isn’t appreciated!
We’ll be back next week. In the meantime, here’s wishing you the best of luck finding the perfect tree for your home!