Christmas and trees

‘Christmas and trees’: They go together like mulled wine and mince pies or tinsel and fairy lights.

In the UK seven million trees are sold each year to celebrate the birth of Christ.  But it hasn’t always been the case.

Prince Albert famously brought a Christmas tree to England but his tree was not the first.  He made the idea fashionable but the aristocracy were decorating trees indoors as part of the festive season before the 1840s.  In 1800, King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, invited local children to a party at Windsor Castle where there was a Christmas tree full of toys and sweets.

The traditional species to use is Norway spruce but the needles quickly drop off and the prickly branches snag and scratch.  Firs don’t suffer from this characteristic and have fragrant needles.  The Colorado white fir (Abies concolor) also has the advantage of soft, child-safe foliage.

Of course you can always opt for an artificial tree.  The expectation with a plastic tree is that it will last for ages.  Unfortunately the evidence suggests most of these trees are used fewer than five times.  And is it appropriate to have an artificial tree in these energy conscious days?  Many are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which produces poisonous dioxins during manufacture and incineration.

UK Christmas trees grow on around 3,500 acres of land.  They, generally, utilise poor soils which would otherwise not be used.  The trees take 7-10 years from planting to harvesting.  Significant amounts of herbicides and pesticides are used to keep them in tip-top condition.

Swedish researchers have investigated the full energy life-cycle of the two types.  The conclusion was that the real tree used approximately one fifth of the energy of the plastic one (even assuming a 10 year life-span of the artificial tree).

The whole Christmas tree idea originated around 700AD when St Boniface travelled from Devon to Germany to teach the locals about Christianity.  He cut down the Germans’ sacred oaks and found that fir trees grew in their place.  The tradition then developed of using the trees in Christmas celebrations.  Things have changed a lot since then.  But it’s comforting to think that there are still links with the past that we can hold on to, even if we feel free to reinterpret them to fit our 21st Century world.

Article written by Steve Cox on December 3, 2009