Grant Jenkins of The Tree Company on choosing a Christmas tree
The simple origins and meanings of the Christmas tree — the fashionable accessory of 19th Century aristocracy —still resonate as part of our Christmas western ideal.
Its evolution is based around pre-Christian pagan cultural practices of adorning homes and places of celebration with greenery at the time of the winter solstice. In the deepest part of winter, the ‘Evergreen’ played an important part in the winter celebrations representing a return of the sun, its life giving warmth, growth and the bounty it provided. These European pagan customs survived their conversion to Christianity.
One early association with the Christian tree was when the 7th Century English monk St Boniface was sent as a missionary to convert the German tribes to the Gospels. Legend has it that St Boniface in anger cut down an Oak tree ‘a tree of Thor’ during a pagan ceremony to prove the power of Christianity over the Norse gods. He found a fir tree growing in the roots of the ancient Oak tree and took this to be a sign of Christianity and faith. St Boniface used the evergreen tree in his ministry with each corner of the trees triangular shape representing the holy trinity, so the story goes.
In the Middle Ages, during the Christmas season in Germany, theatrical plays depicting Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden were called Paradise plays. An evergreen tree, known as the Paradise tree, was the only prop on the stage and hung with apples it became a popular symbol of the season. When these plays stopped being staged, people began to bring an evergreen tree into their own homes, adorned with apples symbolising Adam’s sin, wafers and biscuits were used to represent redemption.
Then in the 16th century, Martin Luther, the protestant reformist, is said to have began the tradition of lighting the tree; the story has it that while walking in the woods near his home, he was struck by the beauty of the starlight glittering through the branches of the evergreen trees. Moved by this experience, he cut a small tree, took it home and decorated it with small candles for his family.
The Christmas tree, as we really know it, evolved in Germany with a fusion of traditions, lighting of the tree with candles and tinsel and from the influence of the paradise tree decorating with sweets, fruit, nuts and marzipans. In the Rhineland in Germany during the 18th Century, the custom became very common, but remained a local tradition. By the beginning of the 19th Century, the custom was becoming fashionable through the Royal courts of Europe spreading to Austria, France and the courts of Russia.
The Christmas tree was brought to Britain in the late 18th Century with the house of Hanover and the Georgian monarchy, but it stayed within the confines of the Royal household and was not adopted by the general populace until the reign of Queen Victoria.
The popularity of Victoria and her German husband Albert made them very fashionable and pictures of the Queen and the Royal family around the decorated Christmas tree circulated the world and this influence was important to the popularity of the tree especially in America. Years before this, in the 1740’s, German settlers had taken the tradition to America, but the strict Puritan beliefs of the time frowned on Christmas decoration. It was not until the mass exodus of European immigrants of the mid 19th Century that attitudes began to change and the Christmas tree ceased to be considered a pagan icon.
By the 1890’s, the Christmas tree was increasingly becoming popular and in the 20th Century no public place was without its tree. From its humble German beginnings in the Rhineland its popularity has continued to grow over the years and with advances in technology, artificial trees and a multitude of mass produced decorations, means that the tradition is stronger than ever and represented in many new materials.
So what type of tree should you choose this Christmas? Artificial? A cut non-shedding tree? Or a non-shedding tree in a pot with its roots in tact? Some of the modern artificial trees are very convincing with ‘real feel’ trees now available. Artificial trees will suit many people for ease, but for me, the fresh resinous smell of a real tree is as much a part of Christmas as the smell of hot mince pies. So now the choice is between a cut tree and a potted tree, the obvious advantage with a potted tree is, if it survives Christmas, you can plant it in the garden or if necessary re-pot it and use it again next year, but finding a decent potted tree at a reasonable cost can be tricky. The most available trees are the real cut trees, usually Noble fir, which are non-shed, meaning they don’t lose their needles; realistically you do get some needles dropping, but nowhere near as many as the original Christmas tree, the Norway spruce, which are now used more in outdoor displays. Now why would you cut down a perfectly good tree to use for a couple of weeks and then throw it away. Well these trees are only grown for the Christmas tree market and are sustainable, being replaced each year with new young trees. Young Christmas trees, because they are growing so vigorously, will use up more carbon dioxide and emit more oxygen than older trees, so there is an environmental benefit by having a real tree.
How to keep your real cut tree looking good throughout the Christmas holiday is very simple, you have to convince the tree that it still has a root system and this is easily done by providing your tree with a regular supply of water. When you first buy your tree it may have already been cut for up to two weeks or more. The wound where the tree was felled will have sealed itself and all the vessels that take up water and nutrients will have been plugged by the trees natural defences. Now this is the key to success — you have to re-wound the tree, cutting across the main stem a good few inches above where the original cut was. The tree will try to heal that wound again to prevent water loss and this may take only a few hours, so you must make sure you cover the wound with water straight away by placing the tree in a vessel with enough water to cover the wound and up the trunk by two to three inches. This slows the healing process and starts the tree thinking it has a root system again. You will be amazed how much water the tree will take up in the first few days, try not to place the tree too near a radiator or stove remember the tree is used to being outside, the closer to a heat source the more it will drink until the wound eventually heals up and the tree starts to dry out, by that stage Christmas should be over. If you can check the water level twice a day initially, topping up as necessary, never let the level drop enough to expose the wound. You don’t need to add any thing extra to the water like sugar, vinegar or a hot drop, just plain old water!
The Christmas tree is a time honoured focal point of our winter celebrations its natural beauty brings not only the colourful pageant into our homes but also a primeval connection to our ancestors.
Merry Christmas and remember when you pour yourself some Christmas cheer, water your tree!
If you need any further information regarding this article or indeed any other tree matters please get in touch with us at The Tree Company, Ballydehob, Co Cork or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our office on 028 37630.