Christmas Tree Guide

That time is quickly approaching—when we clear out our pumpkins and autumn colors and start to prepare for the winter holiday season. We can practically smell the pine because it’s almost time for Christmas trees!

To help ramp up the Christmas season, we’ll give you a quick background of why trees are used to celebrate Christmas, as well as how to pick the best Christmas tree (real or artificial), and what you can do to keep it alive longer. 

History of Christmas Trees

You may be surprised to know that the symbolism of a Christmas tree dates back to the times of the ancient Romans and Egyptians! Evergreens were something that had special meaning, and it was considered that they would protect a home or family against evil spirits, illness, and ghosts [1]. 

Eventually, in the 1800s, Christmas trees began to be associated with Christmas, when the German tradition of candle lit trees came to America. The Germans are considered to be responsible for the Christmas tree tradition that we know and love today. 

In the 16th century, devout Christians would bring trees into their homes and decorate them with candles. This was thought to represent a scene witnessed by the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. One night, he was walking home in the evening and saw the light of the stars reflected in an evergreen tree. To bring this beautiful sight to his family, he replicated what he saw by bringing a tree inside and decorating it with lit candles. 

When the trend came to America, most people thought it was strange and didn’t partake. History traces the first Christmas tree to Pennsylvania in the 1830s, but even until the 1840s, most Americans considered Christmas trees to be pagan symbols and didn’t want them to be anywhere near their homes. 

Even as Christmas trees became more popular around the world, they were largely scoffed at by Americans. In Massachusetts, people were even fined for hanging Christmas decorations! 

This started to change in 1846, when Queen Victoria was sketched in the Illustrated London News. In the image, she was standing with her family around a Christmas tree. As a popular monarch, the Christmas tree suddenly became fashionable, even in the US, where we started to see it sold commercially. 

By the 1890’s, the Christmas tree became more popular amongst Americans. They started bringing trees into their homes that reached the ceiling. This differed from European Christmas trees, which only reached heights of around four feet tall. 

Then, in the early 1900s, Americans began decorating their trees, mostly with homemade ornaments or things like nuts, popcorn, and apples. Once electricity made Christmas lights possible, it became unusual not to see a Christmas tree adorning a house, street corner, or shop. 

What Kinds of Christmas Trees are There?

About 20 million real Christmas trees [2] are purchased every year, and most of them come from ten different tree species, most of which are evergreens that are native to the United States. 

Natural Types

  1. Fraser Fir [3]
  • Color: Gray/silver, green, white
  • Height: Up to 30-50 feet tall
  • Region: Appalachian Mountains, Southeastern US
  • Characteristics: Fragrant piney scent, hardy (can be shipped from different state), long-lasting (needles will look greener for longer)
  1. Virginia Pine [4]
  • Color: Dark green, gray, green/yellow
  • Height: Up to 15-40 feet
  • Region: Eastern US, higher elevations
  • Characteristics: Heat-tolerant, soft needles, requires pruning 
  1. Eastern White Pine [5]
  • Color: Green, green/yellow, light brown to pale yellow
  • Height: Up to 150 feet
  • Region: Northern and Eastern states, along the Appalachian mountains
  • Characteristics: Light scent, excellent needle retention, strong branches can support decorations
  1. Eastern Red Cedar
  • Color: Shiny green 
  • Height: Up to 40-50 feet
  • Region: Southern US
  • Characteristics: Easy to maintain, natural conical shape
  1. White/Concolor Fir
  • Color: Blue/green
  • Height: Up to 150 feet
  • Region: California 
  • Characteristics: Strong pine scent, good needle retention
  1. White Spruce
  • Color: Green
  • Height: Up to 60 feet
  • Region: Northeastern US
  • Characteristics: Needles have somewhat unpleasant odor and shed often, strong branches can support heavy ornaments, natural conical shape
  1. Scotch Pine [6]
  • Color: Medium green
  • Height: Up to 30-50 feet
  • Region: Native to Europe
  • Characteristics: Not likely to shed needles, good water retention, stiff branches are good for decorations, strong piney aroma
  1. Balsam Fir
  • Color: Dark green
  • Height: Up to 75 feet
  • Region: Northeastern US and Canada
  • Characteristics: Short aromatic needles are long lasting and very fragrant, balsam resin has been used historically to treat wounds
  1. Colorado Blue Spruce [7]
  • Color: Dull green, blue green, silvery-blue
  • Height: Up to 65 feet
  • Region: Colorado and Utah
  • Characteristics: Can be sold as a living christmas tree (root ball is intact and can be re-planted), doesn’t shed needles, official White House Christmas tree! 

Artificial Types

When it comes to artificial Christmas trees, you can find practically any style you can think of. You can choose from full-size trees that look like a real tree. These are perfect for larger houses/rooms.  

If you’re living in an apartment or have a smaller space for a Christmas tree, you might want to look for a slim Christmas tree. These are available in tall and short versions. 

If you’ve only got a corner to spare, you can even find a half-wall Christmas tree! As the name suggests, these are just half of a Christmas tree, but against a wall it will look like a full one. 

You can also choose between three common styles: pine (thinner needles), spruce (pointy needles), and fir (fuller needles). You will also have the choice between pre-lit Christmas trees, and even those that already come equipped with some ornamental bulbs.  

All trees will come in different height and width options to accommodate any room! 

If you’re feeling like something different, you can choose from a range of different colors to spice up the holiday season. You may also opt for a flocked Christmas tree, which will have the appearance of freshly-fallen snow. 

Natural Christmas Tree and Artificial Christmas Tree Pros and Cons

There are many factors that will go into choosing the right tree for you. Ultimately the decision will be based on your budget, space limitations, and transportation capacity. However, if you want to celebrate Christmas in an authentic, environmentally-friendly way, a natural, real Christmas tree is the way to go. 

Natural Christmas Tree

Pros:

  • Fresh pine scent
  • Looks more natural
  • Better from an environmental standpoint (tree can be recycled into mulch)
  • Based on traditional customs
  • Can incorporate picking the tree into a fun holiday experience for the whole family
  • Breathing in pine essential oils may help to prevent/cure a common cold [8]
  • Come in a variety of shapes and sizes
  • Purchase can help to support a local business

Cons:

  • Pine needles will fall on the ground and make a mess
  • Can be more expensive over time
  • Difficult to transport and set up
  • May pose a possible fire risk
  • Require regular watering
  • Must be disposed of after the holiday season is over
  • May make animals sick if they eat the pine needles

Artificial Christmas Tree

Pros:

  • Long-lasting, no need to buy a new tree every year
  • May come with the convenience of being pre-lit
  • Can be broken down into smaller sections for easy transport/storage
  • Can choose from different colors and sizes
  • Uniform shape makes it easier to decorate

Cons:

  • Artificial Christmas trees are commonly made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which may contain toxic chemical additives that can leach out into the air [9]
  • PVC is also difficult to recycle, meaning that at the end of its life the tree will end up in a landfill
  • More of an up-front investment
  • Most artificial Christmas trees are produced in a different country, which means significant carbon emissions for their transport
  • Will require space for storage in between holiday seasons
  • No smell or feel of a “real” Christmas

How Long Will a Christmas Tree Last and How to Keep It Fresh Longer?

Christmas trees will typically last around five weeks, but it will likely start to turn brown within four weeks. This means that if you buy your tree around Thanksgiving, you’ll have just enough life in it to make it to Christmas.

The most important thing to do to keep it looking fresh and green: keep it thoroughly watered.  

How to help your Christmas tree stay fresh throughout the holiday season:

  • Look for a healthy Christmas tree! If you see brown needles, buy a different one.
    • PRO TIP: Look for trees that are in shadier areas of the lot/store. 
  • After you bring your Christmas tree home, make a clean cut at the base of the tree using a hand saw. If you remove about one-quarter of an inch (up to one inch), you’ll allow water and nutrients to flow more freely, which will help to keep it fresher for longer. 
  • Get a tree stand/holder that has a container to hold water. You’ll need to regularly water the tree, and a stand without this ability should be avoided.
  • Adequate watering is important as your tree will drink up to a gallon of water every single day! Check the tree every day and ensure that the water line stays above the freshly-cut tree base.
    • PRO TIP: Some people recommend mineral water, distilled water, 7UP, or even strange ketchup-mixtures to keep your tree hydrated. However, plain ol’ H2O should do the trick—no need for anything bizarre. 
  • Trees thrive better in cooler areas. That said, as picturesque as it may look, avoid putting the tree next to the fireplace, or close to your heating vent. Also, trees do better when they aren’t close to a draft, so avoid having it next to a breezy window or door.
    • PRO TIP: Put on those warm winter socks and sweaters and lower the heat of your house to keep your Christmas tree looking fresh. 

What is the Best Christmas Tree to Buy?

Before you clear out the space and head to the store or tree farm, it’s a good idea to make a few considerations. Deliberation comes before decoration! With something like a Christmas tree, you’ll want to be sure you’re making the right decision (they’re not returnable, after all!).

Here are a few questions to get those jingle bells rolling:

  • Where will the tree go? Do you have a specific room in mind? A specific spot in that room?
  • How much space do you have available in the room? How tall are the ceilings?
  • Will you just be getting one tree, or will you have multiple?
  • What will you be using for decorations? 
  • Do you have a way to transport the tree? Will the size of the tree be limited by your vehicle?
  • How long do you want to have the tree?
  • Are there any safety concerns that come with the tree? Do you have a child or animal that could knock it over?

When is the Best Time to Buy a Christmas Tree?

Generally speaking, most people do their Christmas tree shopping on the weekend after Thanksgiving. While you too may feel the rush of excitement after Turkey Day, you might actually want to schedule in some tree shopping before Thanksgiving. 

Why? Well, if you plan your Christmas tree shopping in mid-November you’ll beat the rush and will have a better selection of quality trees. Also, with the busyness of Christmas shopping and holiday trips, you could ultimately end up running out of time. Or worse, you could be left with very slim pickings (no one likes a scraggly looking Christmas tree!).

Another important thing to consider are the natural disruptions that may cause a Christmas tree shortage. These include problems like fire, disease, drought, or insects and could make finding that “perfect” Christmas tree all the more difficult, so getting a jumpstart on the process could be helpful. 

What to Look for When Buying a Christmas Tree

After you’ve decided on which type of tree is best for you and your preferences, and you know the dimensions of the space in which it will be kept, you can start to make a few considerations in order to get the freshest and healthiest Christmas tree.

When you’re Christmas tree shopping, keep the following in mind:

  • Look for freshness (another reason to start the shopping earlier). You could be looking at trees that have been cut down weeks earlier, which means that they could have been exposed to harmful elements during this time. The fresher the better.
    • PRO TIP: Don’t hesitate to ask the retailer about when the tree was cut down. Get in touch with us before the holiday season to find out about ours! 
  • Look for a tree with the fewest number of brown needles. It’s likely that you’ll spot a little bit of brown on all of them, but look for the greenest tree available. 
  • Give a branch a little bit of a wiggle. If you see any green needles fall out, look for another tree as this could indicate that the tree is dry.
    • PRO TIP: Do this as a “drop test” by raising the tree off the ground by a few inches and drop it back down. Green needles on the ground might indicate that the tree was cut awhile ago and is dry. 
  • Feel the needles. They should feel soft and fresh, not dry and brittle. Once you run your fingers down a branch, the needles (for the most part) should stay intact. 
  • If you see that the tree has a grayish blue-green tint to it, it may be one that was cut down some time ago and a fresher one should be chosen instead. 
  • If you see any damage (eggs, insects, gashes in the tree’s base), look for another one. 

How to Properly Dispose of Your Christmas Tree

Once the holiday season wraps up, the gifts go away, and you start making those New Year’s resolutions, you’ll also want to plan how to properly dispose of your Christmas tree. 

In many cities, local recycling centers will offer to pick up your tree to transform it into mulch. Curbside pickup in Massachusetts will typically run for the first two weeks in January [10] and will include regular Christmas trees. Artificial Christmas trees are not accepted. 

Here are a few ways to plan for this curbside pickup:

  • If you have a large tree (larger than around six or seven feet), you might have to cut it in half so that the garbage hauler will accept it. 
  • You will need to remove anything that is not organic (i.e. all lights, tinsel, ornaments, stands, nails, etc.)
  • Check with your local government agency to see what will happen with your tree, in some areas it will be turned into mulch that will be made available to you for free!
  • If you have a backyard compost, cut the tree into smaller sections and compost it!
  • It may be tempting, but NEVER burn your Christmas tree in a wood stove or fireplace. This may result in the buildup of creosote (a dangerous byproduct from burning wood), which could cause a chimney fire.  

Sources:

[1]: https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

[2]: https://www.thoughtco.com/best-selling-christmas-trees-1341582

[3]: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/abies-fraseri/

[4]: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/pinus-virginiana/

[5]: https://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_pist.pdf

[6]: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/trees/handbook/th-3-171.pdf

[7]: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/trees/handbook/th-3-177.pdf

[8]: https://www.healthline.com/health/pine-oil

[9]: https://www.state.nj.us/humanservices/opmrdd/health/pvc.html

[10]: http://www.pickyourownchristmastree.org/MassachusettsTreeRecyclingDisposal.php

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