How Green is Your Tree? The History of Real Christmas Trees
There is something undeniably magical about coming downstairs during the festive season to smell the pine scent and see the twinkling lights on a real Christmas tree. Although we associate the Christmas tree tradition with the Victorian era, the custom of bringing evergreen foliage indoors during the winter is much older, reminding us that life continues even during the dormancy of the colder months.
It may seem a shame to cut down a tree to decorate our homes, but Christmas trees are grown sustainably and have a relatively low carbon footprint. We take a look at the history, customs, ecology, and sustainability of these beautiful trees that bring a little of the outdoors into our homes.
The history of Christmas trees
The tradition of bringing in evergreen boughs into houses during the winter dates back to ancient Egyptian and Roman times. The return of longer days and the triumph of life over death at the darkest point of the year was celebrated in feasts such as the Saturnalia. The winter solstice has been celebrated in many cultures as the turning point in the year when the days start getting longer and the renewal of nature brings hope of warmer days and future harvests.
Evergreens symbolise the continuity of life during the winter months and they were hung above doors and windows in many countries to keep away illness and evil spirits. Even today, Christian churches are decorated with evergreen branches and wreaths to represent eternal life as part of their advent celebrations in a festival known as the hanging of the greens.
Advent wreath in Stanford Memorial Church Palo Alto. Photo credit: Ed Bierman (https://www.flickr.com)
The modern Christmas tree tradition started in 16th century Renaissance Germany, when wooden pyramids would be constructed and decorated with evergreen branches. It is widely believed that the custom of adding candles to light the tree was started by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther who wanted to replicate the effect of seeing stars through evergreen branches on a snowy winter walk. Candles were traditionally used to light up trees, guarded by a household servant to limit fires, until the 19th century when electric lights became available.
The Covent Garden Christmas tree. Photo credit: Alex Liivet (https://www.flickr.com)
Christmas trees became popular in the UK in the 19th century, inspired by the publicity surrounding the royal Christmas trees in Windsor Castle. They were first introduced by the German-born wife of George III, who had one at a party for children in 1800 and then became a regular annual feature in the royal palaces. The custom became more widespread after Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert and the subsequent publication of an engraving of the royal family around the tree in the Illustrated London News in 1848.
The tradition spread through the nobility but did not become common in all households until the mid 20th century. The magical effect of Christmas trees led to a charity being set up in 1906 to ensure that children in the slums who had never seen a Christmas tree could see one that year.
The 1848 engraving of the royal family around the Christmas tree, Illustrated London News
The popularity of Christmas trees waned a little after Queen Victoria’s death and then during the Second World War it was forbidden to cut down trees for use as ornamentation. They regained popularity after the war, however, and artificial trees became more widespread. The first artificial trees were made from painted feathers in Germany in the 19th century and then these evolved through brush trees (made by a toilet brush company), aluminium trees and into the plastic trees that are widely used now.
Christmas trees are often a symbol of peace and public trees are often gifted from other nations to commemorate an end to hostilities or as thanks for international aid. The Trafalgar Square tree in London is gifted by Norway as a token of thanks for British support of the Norwegian resistance during the Second World War and the civic tree in Newcastle is given by the city of Bergen in recognition of the aid by soldiers from Newcastle in liberating the city from Nazi occupation.
Christmas tree decorations
Early decorations were mostly made from paper or food and the earliest records of decorated Christmas trees date to 1605, when they were adorned with paper roses, apples, and candles. In the 17th and 18th century households in Germany and Austria would bring in evergreens and hang them upside down, decorated with apples, nuts, and strips of red paper. Christmas decorations during the Victorian era became more elaborate but were mostly homemade and included fabric pouches with sugared almonds, paper snowflakes, stars, and beaded decorations.
Glass ornaments were first produced in Lauscha in Germany and imported into the UK in the 19th century, where they rapidly became a status symbol. At the time such was the pride in the Empire that the most popular topper for a Christmas tree was the Union Jack flag. Tinsel was invented around 1610 and initially consisted of strands of silver until the mid 20th century, when it was replaced by plastic.
Decorations vary around the world, with brightly coloured wooden animal ornaments and straw stars popular in Sweden, marzipan decorations in Germany, origami swans in Japan, lucky spiders in Ukraine, popcorn in the US and glass apples in France.
Christmas tree farming
In the UK we buy 10 million real Christmas trees every year, with around 3 million of these being imported. Christmas tree farming in the UK is done sustainably, with up to ten seedlings replacing every tree cut, creating mini forests that absorb carbon to help fight climate change and provide habitat for wildlife. Although monoculture plantations are associated with reduced biodiversity, it is possible to create a mixed species forest including plots of Christmas tree species, which increases biodiversity, protects the young trees, and reduces the need for pesticides. European Christmas tree plantations have been found to be an important breeding area for some threatened species of birds including the woodlark (Lullula arborea) and linnet (Carduelis cannabina), having higher breeding densities than surrounding forest.
Most of the growing and cutting process can be mechanised but trees are individually pruned by hand to shape them into a pyramid and keep the branches bushy. The most popular tree in the UK is the Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), a European species that originates in the Causcaus, and it accounts for 85% of the trees sold. It replaced the Norway spruce (Picea abies) as the most popular Christmas tree type, as they tend to drop a lot of needles. Other trees such as the Fraser fir (Abies Fraseri), noble fir (Abies procera) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are becoming more widely grown as they have a stronger scent and different colouration.
Fraser fir Christmas tree plantation. Photo credit: Soil Science (https://www.flickr.com)
The green credentials of Christmas trees
With the need to live more sustainably becoming a higher priority, it might seem as if an artificial tree might be more environmentally friendly as it can be reused. Surprisingly the Carbon Trust has concluded that real Christmas trees have a much lower carbon footprint than artificial trees, especially if they are carefully sourced and disposed of. If a real Christmas tree is disposed of in landfill, it has a carbon footprint of 16kg CO2, whereas if it is recycled and turned into woodchip for gardening or burned, it has a carbon footprint of 3.5kg CO2. An artificial Christmas tree has a carbon footprint of 40kg, which means it would need to be used for 10 years to have a lower carbon footprint than a real tree. If you can find a local Christmas tree grower to source your tree from, it reduces the carbon footprint even more.
Buying a potted tree can reduce the carbon footprint even further if it is reused, just make sure that it is labelled ‘pot grown’ to indicate that it is used to being in a pot and has not been dug up from the ground. It is now possible to rent a Christmas tree just for the festive period and return it back to the expert care of the grower at the end of the season.
Whichever real tree option you choose, you can be assured that it’s an environmentally beneficial way of bringing some of the winter outdoors indoors, a reassuring reminder of the continuity of life right in your front room.