27 Amazing Facts About Christmas Trees
There’s a lot you don’t know about your holiday foliage.
Nothing elicits quite the same amount of holiday joy like a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. But when you think about it, the idea of these fancy firs is a bit odd. Why do we decorate evergreens, specifically? Why are they in our homes? What's the deal with stringing pieces of popcorn across their branches? After all, the first Christmas had nothing to do with trees—or movie-theater snacks. Clearly, the Christmas-tree tradition is ripe for investigation. From the history of decorating them to what goes into making an artificial one, Christmas trees hold many more surprises than the ones wrapped underneath them.
We've been decorating Christmas trees for about 500 years.
One of the first Christmas tree-decorating ceremonies involved adorning a fir tree with paper flowers, singing and dancing around it, and then lighting the entire thing on fire. Unsurprisingly, there was some heavy drinking involved too. That all took place in the town square of Riga, the capital city of Latvia, in 1510.
At that time in northern Europe, Christmas celebrations looked very different than they do today. The festivities ran from the end of November to the New Year, and the celebrants focused on community and the spiritual aspects of daily living. The dazzling spectacle of our Christmas trees would likely be quite a shock to them.
This Christian tradition grew from pagan symbolism.
Okay, so how did evergreen trees become synonymous with Christmas in the first place? Turns out, the answer is older than Jesus himself.
Throughout history, pagans would decorate their homes with evergreen branches during the winter solstice to remind them that, although it was cold and bleak outside, spring was around the corner. Early Romans also used evergreens to decorate their temples for Saturnalia, a festival they celebrated in December. When Christians began associating the birth of Christ with these previously existing winter holidays, they picked up on the evergreen tree as a symbol of eternal life for those who love God. It turns out every religion can agree that fir trees look beautiful and smell delicious.
Christmas trees used to hang like chandeliers.
It took centuries of trial and error to get our trees to stand up straight. In the process of finding the right display, medieval German Christians hung their trees upside-down from the ceiling. They saw the triangle shape of the inverted tree as a symbol of the Holy Trinity—and they may have been onto something. A suspended tree is a great way to get around limited floor space and curious pets.
Evergreens weren't the only Christmas trees.
These days, the most popular Christmas trees are Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, balsam fir, and white pine. However, in the early days before everyone settled on firs and pines, some Europeans used cherry or hawthorn trees as their Christmas greenery. The appeal of these trees was in their flowers. If you cut off a branch, brought it inside, and set it in a pot of water, it would flower just in time for Christmas.
Americans buy upwards of 30 million Christmas trees a year.
According to the U.S. National Christmas Tree Association, 25-30 million live trees are harvested annually from a crop of about 350 million trees in farms across the nation. The total land needed for all those farms comes to 547 square miles—about twice the size of the greater Chicago area. Fortunately, these farms help preserve green space, and they also employ about 100,000 Americans each year. Alternatively, as the NCTA is quick to point out, most artificial trees are made in China.
Christmas trees are farmed in 47 states.
You might have heard the "fun fact" that Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states. However, you deserve to know the truth.
While there's no comprehensive database, a comparison of several national lists shows there are no tree farms in New Mexico, North Dakota, or Wyoming. Of course, just because the trees aren't sold commercially doesn't mean that some enterprising soul isn't trying to cultivate conifers in the desert. This claim is a tough one to disprove, but most homes in the dry Southwest or sparsely-populated Great Plains states actually get their trees from Oregon and Pennsylvania.
The Rockefeller Center tree is 80 years-old.
The huge holiday spectacle at Rockefeller Center in New York City had humble beginnings. The tradition started during the Great Depression in 1931, when construction workers put up a mere 20-foot tree in the plaza and decorated it with paper garlands, strings of cranberries, and tin cans. Today, a Norway spruce no taller than 100 feet is chosen every year, trucked into Manhattan, propped up in the plaza, and topped with a Swarovski crystal star that weighs just over 9,000 pounds.
The Trafalgar Square tree comes from Oslo.
London has its own arboreal tradition: a huge Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square. This tree is more than just a spectacle, however—it's a thank-you gift. Every year since 1947, the people of Oslo, Norway, have selected a 50- to 60-year-old spruce tree to cut down and ship to London as a way of showing gratitude to England for supporting Norway in World War II. In turn, Londoners decorate the tree in traditional Norwegian style, with vertical strings of lights descending from the star on top.
Christmas trees take nearly a decade to grow.
You certainly can't fit a 60-year-old tree in your living room, but even your modest six- to seven-foot Christmas tree takes between four and 15 years to grow. Along the way, it will be sheared to keep its conical shape for easier decorating. For every tree that's cut down, farmers usually plant up to three seedlings, making this a sustainable agricultural practice. Of the approximately 2,000 seedlings planted per acre, about one-half to three-quarters will make it to maturity, often through adverse weather conditions. Show some respect to your tree this year—it's been through a lot!
Artificial trees have been made out of nearly everything.
If you prefer an artificial tree, you're not alone. This option is cheaper and lower maintenance, which is one less thing to worry about for parents and pet owners alike. Artificial trees date back to the 1880s, when Germans looking to offset deforestation made the first ones from dyed goose feathers held together with wire. Since then, people around the world have made fake trees out of toilet brush bristles, aluminum, cardboard, and glass. Though most artificial Christmas trees sold today are made out of PVC plastic, tech-savvy revelers can purchase a self-illuminating fiber-optic tree.
The largest artificial Christmas tree was in Sri Lanka.
Standing 236-feet tall and made of scrap metal and wood covered in plastic netting, the world's tallest artificial Christmas tree was erected in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 2016. The tree produced controversy during construction—the local Catholic archbishop thought it was a waste of money (about $80,000) that should have gone to charity—and ultimately didn't last long. It was dismantled in 2017 when folks realized it looked more like a rocket than a fir tree.
New England Puritans banned Christmas trees.
Even though America owes much of its history to the Puritans, we have to admit they weren't a lot of fun. In 1659, the court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony formally banned any Christmas celebrations aside from a church service, which included the "heathen tradition" of hanging decorations. Though the church wasn't wrong about their pagan roots, Christmas trees still drew looks of scorn in America for nearly two more centuries, when German and Irish immigrants finally normalized decking the halls.
Queen Victoria popularized the Christmas tree.
Though strict religious attitudes towards Christmas trees had finally begun to soften by the early 1800s, it wasn't until Queen Victoria and her family was sketched next to the household fir tree in 1846 that they truly became popular in the English-speaking world. Having grown up with a German mother and married a German prince, Victoria associated Christmas not with Puritan austerity, but with the scent of evergreen decorated with oranges, cloves, and cinnamon sticks. Even the former colonies admired British royalty, and Christmas trees finally became fashionable in America.
The world puts up their trees at different times.
In order to avoid bad luck in the German Christmas tradition, you should erect your Christmas tree no sooner than Christmas Eve (or sometimes the 23rd) and take it down no later than the Twelfth Night after Christmas (a.k.a. January 5). In some predominately Catholic countries—Ireland, Italy, Argentina, etc.—the tree goes up on Immaculate Conception Day (December 8) and comes down on Epiphany (January 6), though some Catholics extend that to Candlemas (February 2). However, everyone can agree that you should definitely not put your tree up before Halloween—that's just obnoxious.
Ukrainians decorate their Christmas trees with spider webs.
While it sounds ominous, this tradition is actually rooted in a heartwarming folktale about a poor widow who found a Christmas tree for her children. However, she had no money to decorate it, so on Christmas Eve, she went to bed sobbing. That night, the spiders heard her tears and proceeded to cover the tree with delicate, glistening webs. Some versions say the webs actually turned into silver and gold, while others say they merely looked like precious metals—either way, the widow felt rich on Christmas morning. In honor of this, many Ukrainian families decorate their trees with silver and gold cobwebs and spiders.
The Vatican didn't get a Christmas tree until 1982.
Originating as it did in pagan traditions by way of German Lutherans around the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Christmas tree was one tradition that the Holy See snubbed for hundreds of years. It wasn't until 1982 that Pope John Paul II, already known as a bit of a reformer, brought a Christmas tree into the Vatican to sit beside the traditional Italian Nativity crib. Nowadays, though, Catholic liturgy includes a prayer for officially blessing your tree.
The White House evergreen goes in the Blue Room.
While it's unknown whether Franklin Pierce or Benjamin Harrison started the tradition, the White House gets an official Christmas tree every year. It sits in the circular Blue Room, and every year since 1961, the First Lady has been in charge of selecting the theme and decorations for the tree. The tree hasn't always been without controversy—in 1899, many people urged President McKinley to forgo the "un-American" display because of its German roots. Some say that Teddy Roosevelt banned Christmas trees for environmental reasons, but in fact, he displayed a tree for three of his eight Christmases as president.
One Florida city makes a Christmas tree out of sand.
West Palm Beach, Florida, boasts every year that it has the world's largest Christmas tree made entirely of sand, though it's unlikely that they have serious competition. Seven hundred tons of beach sand go into making "Sandi," as she's affectionately called, a 35-foot peak strung with lights and topped with a star, of course. During the month-long Holiday in Paradise, kids are invited to explore Sandi-Land, a free attraction which includes musical shows, miniature golf, and "a backstage peek in Sandi's dressing room"—whatever that entails.
Americans will make Christmas trees out of anything.
If sand doesn't impress you, here's a list of cities that make Christmas trees out of even stranger materials. Baltimore, Maryland, is home to a tree made out of hubcaps. Exactly 154 lobster traps comprise the 40-foot-tall Lobster Trap Tree in Rockland, Maine. Junction, Texas, displays a tree made of deer antlers. The tree in Telluride, Colorado, made of donated skis wouldn't be complete without its ski-pole star. Chandler, Arizona, turns tumbleweeds into a glittery Christmas tree each year. Finally, staying on-brand, Lynchburg, Tennessee, makes a tree out of Jack Daniels' whiskey barrels.
Christmas trees cause 200 fires every year.
While you shouldn't let fear of a fire stop you from celebrating, it is important to observe some basic safety rules. Every year, Christmas trees cause an average of 200 household fires, leading to $14.8 million in property damage and six deaths. Firefighters recommend watering your tree daily, keeping any heat sources at least three feet from the tree, throwing away any damaged lights or frayed wires, and unplugging the lights when you go to bed at night. These apply whether your tree is real or artificial.
Australia Christmas trees are the world's largest parasites.
If you heard the phrase "Australian Christmas tree," you might imagine a fir tree on the beach, or possibly one of those German upside-down trees Down Under. However, the plant that Australians call a "Christmas tree" is actually an aggressive, hemi-parasitic type of mistletoe. It looks nothing like a conifer, but its yellow-orange flows bloom around the holidays, hence the name. It uses its roots like blades to pierce the roots of other plants and steal their nutrients. Occasionally, those roots also attack buried telephone or power cables. Don't mess with Australia.
Tinsel used to contain lead.
People have used metallic tinsel to decorate their Christmas trees since at least the 1800s. The shiny strips of metal reflect light, allowing for a sparkling tree even in candlelight. Originally, only the rich could afford tinsel, since it was made out of actual silver. Copper and aluminum became substitutes, but neither was ideal. Sometime after World War I, tinsel makers settled on lead as the metal of choice, even though there were already inklings that it could be poisonous. It wasn't until the 1970s that the FDA managed to ban household products made of lead.
Christmas wreaths were first used to celebrate advent.
Visit any Christmas tree lot and you're likely to see a number of wreaths for sale that have been constructed from branches removed from the bottom of sold trees. In general, plant-based wreaths go back to ancient times, where they were usually worn as crowns, but once again, we have 16th-century Germans to thank for applying the wreath to Christmas traditions. These Lutherans used Advent wreaths—set flat on a table—to count down the Sundays until Christmas with four white candles around the edge and a single red candle in the center.
Catalonian children whack the poop log.
There's more than one way to celebrate Christmas with a tree. In the Catalan region of Spain, many celebrate with a Tió de Nadal, or "Christmas log"… which is also sometimes called Caga Tió, or "shit log." Starting on December 8, the family puts out a hollow log (usually with a funny face and a red hat), and each day, the children take turns "feeding" it with dried fruit and nuts. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the children whack the log with sticks until it "poops" the treats back out. I bet your Douglas fir can't do that.
The popcorn garland is an American tradition
All it takes is some popcorn, cranberries, a needle, and dental floss to make your very own homemade Christmas tree garland. Though Germans traditionally decorated their trees with cookies, nuts, and fruit, Americans in the 1800s adapted this to long strings of popcorn and cranberries. While it's unknown exactly why popcorn was chosen—though likely because it was cheap—cranberries are perfect, since their waxy coating keeps them from spoiling quickly. If you want to try it yourself, just make sure you use day-old popcorn, which breaks apart less easily than fresh.
Thomas Edison's friend first put electric lights on a Christmas tree.
Some people say Edison himself did this, but let's not let Edison take more credit than he deserves. It was, in fact, his colleague and friend, Edward Johnson, who first thought of putting electric lights on a Christmas tree instead of the traditional candles. However, it did stand in Edison's power plant in Manhattan, set on a rotating box so that passersby could see all 80 blinking red, white, and blue (of course) lights. On Christmas in 1882, no one had seen anything like it.
Christmas trees are recyclable.
Alas, the holiday season must ultimately come to an end, but when it does, be sure to recycle your Christmas tree. Obviously, recycled trees can be turned into mulch or compost, but that's not the only option. Where needed, dead Christmas trees can be buried to prevent soil erosion, sunk in a body of water to create a refuge for fish, or shredded and placed on hiking paths to keep the trail marked and the ground stable. (Just don't burn it, which is bad for your chimney.) If your house doesn't already have yard waste pickup, look for a tree recycling center near you!
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