Skip to main content

Notes from the Field Station: Christmas Tree Tradition

Posted on Friday, December 16, 2011

Conifers of several sorts have been symbols of Christmas for centuries in nearly all Western countries.  At the Field Station we grow conifers - pines, firs, spruces, larches and hemlocks - not to be decorated just once a year, but to be everyday representatives of an ecological indicator of our region.

Our region, however, is not part of the great Northern Coniferous forest biome which occupies a vast area extending across Canada, into interior Alaska and across most of northern Eurasia. We are in the Deciduous Forest biome found in the eastern half of North America and the middle of Europe.  This does not mean that we have no native and significant conifers (also called evergreens) here.  We do, indeed!  According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources there are 10 coniferous forest community types identified in Pennsylvania and conifers or mixed conifer-deciduous cover comprises 8.4% of Pennsylvania's land.

Pennsylvania's state tree is the Eastern or Canadian hemlock which does not usually make a popular Christmas tree.  Only about 10 species of conifers commonly fit that category.

According to David Robson, educator and horticulture historian, ancient Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshipped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrived, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life's triumph over death.  The Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a feast in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. They decorated their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. Centuries ago in Great Britain, priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals. They hung holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life and placed evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits.  Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians moved evergreen trees inside their homes to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. Our modern Christmas tree evolved from these early traditions.

Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating evergreens to celebrate Christmas. One crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens, their branches dusted with snow.  When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles in honor of Christ's birth.  The Christmas tree tradition most likely came to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio. The market for selling these trees was born in 1851 when Catskill farmer, Mark Carr, hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and 20 years later, the custom was nearly universal.

Christmas tree farms sprang up during the Great Depression. Nurserymen couldn't sell their evergreens for landscaping, so they cut them for Christmas trees. Cultivated trees were preferred because they have a more symmetrical shape than wild ones. 

There are many Christmas tree farms in Western Pennsylvania, often converted from otherwise unusable land that followed surface strip mining for coal.  This past season there were two outlets in New Wilmington for local patrons to purchase cut Christmas trees.  Some people still prefer a real tree!  And, in fact, those with a strong ecological bent may buy a balled evergreen, use it for the holidays and then plant it.  This is the case of one Norway spruce at the Field Station.  Students in 1992 purchased the tree and decorated it for the lobby of the biology department.  That tree, transplanted into our Arboretum, is now 28 feet tall.

In addition to our growing collection of conifers for study and research in our Microforest and Arboretum, we have another conifer activity to deal respectfully with Christmas trees that have served their role once the New Year makes its debut.  We will again collect Christmas trees from the community after December 25.  Then in February we will host our 15th annual Chipping Party, a green event for college and community folk who can come together to return the trees back to the soil from which they came.  This will complete one of the great cycles of nature, benefit the environment, and is fun.

Clarence Harms, Director
Field Station

Christmas tree market in New Wilmington
Stand of white pine trees at the Field Station not for sale
Norway spruce as a balled tree in 1992
Norway spruce now 28 feet tall