The Christmas tree is a fascinating symbol that has transcended religion and culture. What led to the creation of the Christmas tree is full of speculation, but scholars feel it is likely linked to pagan traditions centered on the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year that occurs December 21st or 22nd. For centuries, evergreens have inspired people by their ability to remain full of life, despite the world around them succumbing to winter’s frost. Naturally, people brought them into their homes in these cold months as a symbol of perseverance and hope.
Christmas trees have never really served a functional purpose throughout history other than for decoration, yet their acceptance has become infectious. The tradition of the “Christmas tree” appears to have started in Germany around the time of the Protestant Reformation, and at that time, it appeared to have become a Protestant custom. The custom gained momentum and was becoming commonplace amongst many Christian societies by the middle of the 19th century. By 1986, Pope John Paul II introduced the Christmas tree to the Vatican, cementing its acceptance by Roman Catholics, who surely were observing the practice well before 1986!
Amongst the Orthodox Christian community, Peter the Great of Russia adopted a “New Year’s Tree” in the 17th century, which was later banned in Imperial Russia in 1916 due to its association with Germany, an enemy of Russia at the time. It wasn’t until after the installation of the Soviet Union that the ban was lifted in 1935, and these endearing conifers once again became commonplace in Russian homes and public squares.
By the 20th century, a phenomenon known as the Hanukkah bush had infiltrated some sects of Judaism. These bushes were no doubt nothing more than a scaled down version of the Christmas tree, which allowed Jewish families to partake in the same festive decorative practice. This practice is controversial and really only found amongst liberal Jewish communities.
It is believed that the Europeans, who settled the Great Plains, brought the practice of the Christmas tree with them to the frontier. As we know, the plains of the Dakotas are largely devoid of trees, and because of this, many pioneers constructed their homes from sod bricks cut from the ground. It’s rumored these hearty settlers used tumbleweeds, in lieu of trees, for the festive Christmas custom and decorated them as Christmas trees for the holidays.
In contemporary times, Christmas trees are cultivated as a cash crop. The Economist estimates this to be a $1 billion industry. And, no industry is complete without its own trade association. The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) was started in 1995 to advocate for those growing Christmas trees. Christmas trees take 8 to 12 years to grow, which is no doubt a serious investment that needs to be protected.
In 2008, a new trade association appeared, known as the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), which claims to support the industry as whole, inclusive of artificial Christmas trees. This has led the NCTA to make strong efforts to lobby consumers to purchase natural Christmas trees over fake trees.
Statistics indicate that sales for real Christmas trees in 2012 totaled 25 million trees and sales of fake trees came to around 11 million trees. Keep in mind, fake Christmas trees can be used more than one time, and most statistics indicate fake trees are now used more often than real trees, despite having less number of sales per year.
The Economist also estimates there will be nearly 250 Christmas tree fires this season, which will include both real and fake trees.
Despite your religion, culture or propensity to purchase real or artificial trees, the Christmas tree continues to be a symbol widely recognized throughout the world, and it will no doubt continue to evolve in ways that brings warmth and spirit into homes to help us get through the winter months.