You can skip some Christmas traditions. You can get into the Christmas spirit without watching "A Christmas Carol" for the nineteenth time. You can be festive without putting a plastic Santa on your lawn. And you can partake of holiday cheer without getting drunk on eggnog or gorging yourself with roast goose.
But for many of us, Christmas without a tree just doesn't seem like the real thing. The tree is the centerpiece of our Yuletide celebration. Without the tree, you lose out on a lot of decorating fun. No laughing and talking with your friends or family while you string popcorn and cranberries. No throwing gobs of tinsel on each other. No reminiscing about the cheesy ornaments you made when you were a little kid.
Christmas Tree Origins
Of course, Christmas didn't always involve decorating an evergreen tree. Our modern Christmas tree has pagan origins; some very old religions practiced various forms of tree worship. The ancient Egyptians put up palm trees as part of their life-affirming worship of the god Baal-Tamar. The ancient Romans believed that Adonis had been created from a branch of a fir tree that his mother had been turned into. Trees were also integral to ancient Babylonian, Indian, and Druid ceremonies.
Historians generally agree that our evergreen Christmas trees originated in Germany in the Middle Ages when pagan tribes were converted to Christianity but kept some of the trappings of their previous religion.
Some say that Christmas trees came into being in the 8th century when St. Boniface was converting the Germanic peoples. The tribes worshipped oaks and decorated them for the winter solstice. St. Boniface supposedly chopped down a huge oak tree that was sacred to one tribe; a fir tree sprouted in its place. The fir was taken as a symbol of Christianity replacing their old religion. The people started decorating fir trees instead of oak trees.
Other sources say that using trees as a part of Christian celebration gained popularity in Germany much later. One legend states that the practice of decorating Christmas trees began with Martin Luther. He was travelling through a dark forest and was entranced by the sight of stars twinkling through the frosty branches; afterward, he decided to decorate a tree for Christmas.
Regardless of the precise origin, the practice of decorating evergreens for Christmas was brought to England in 1840 by Prince Albert after he married Queen Victoria. Hessian mercenaries who fought in the American Revolution and german settlers later brought Christmas trees to the United States and Canada.
Today, people put up Christmas trees all over the world because they're so gosh-darned festive. You can find a tree and decorations to suit almost any budget and taste imaginable. You can even decorate them so as to expunge any association with Christianity; I've even seen tree decorations with zombies and devils on them.
Artificial trees, whose needles are made of plastic, paper, or tinsel, are an economical choice for many people. You can find trees in a wide range of sizes, use them for many years, and they require little maintenance to look good. Furthermore, you didn't kill a real tree for the holidays. The trees can still catch fire, though, so you have to be careful with electrical cords and candles. If you miss the scent of a real tree, you can always include wreaths made from real evergreen branches in your decorating, or just use evergreen-scented potpourri.
Cut Christmas Trees
For some people, Christmas just wouldn't be the same without the aroma of fresh pine wafting through the house. For these folks, nothing but a real tree will do. But picking out a live or cut tree is a little more difficult (and expensive) than simply buying an artificial tree. And real trees definitely require special treatment.
If you want to buy a cut tree, you've got to make sure it's fresh and green. If it's dry, it will at least shed lots of its needles and it might create a fire hazard if you're decorating it with electric lights (decorating a tree with candles is very dangerous).
To figure out if a cut tree is fresh, examine it. If the trunk looks green, the tree has been painted, and it's probably not fresh. The needles and smaller branches of a good tree should be pliable and springy. If you pull on the needles, they shouldn't come out easily. Pick up the tree and knock the stump on the ground. If needles cascade out of the branches, don't buy the tree.
Once you've got your cut tree home, you'll need to saw off the last inch to two inches of the trunk so that the tree will be able to soak up water (the end of the trunk gets clogged with sap over time, so chances are the end of your tree will probably be somewhat clogged by the time you get it home.) You should set the tree up in a water-filled stand so that it stays fresh. Adding a commercial tree preservative to the water helps the tree stay fresh longer, but so will simply mixing in a tablespoon of sugar.
When you're putting lights on your tree, be aware of the chance of fire -- resinous evergreens burn really well. Attach lights to the inner branches so that the bulbs don't come into contact with needles or tinsel (this precaution isn't necessary if you're using low-heat lights).
And be sure to recycle your cut tree after Christmas. Contact your local recycling facility to get details; some communities offer curbside pickup of trees for recycling.
Live Christmas Trees
Many people feel that cut trees are wasteful, but they still want to enjoy the scent of a real tree at Christmas. Most larger nurseries sell live trees that can be decorated and kept inside for a few days and then taken outside to be planted (of course, your soil type and climate have to be conducive to keeping an evergreen alive).
When you're picking out a live tree, you'll want it to last beyond Christmas, so make sure it's in good condition. Don't buy a tree that has dry or yellowed needles or broken branches. It's also best not to buy trees from mass-market outlets because the trees have often been packed in so tightly for transport that their trunks and branches have been bent.
It's best to buy a live tree early in fall, before the Christmas season hits, and keep it in a tub in your back yard or patio until you want to bring it in to be decorated. Regardless of when you buy your small live tree, don't keep it indoors for more than five days, or the tree may start to bud and it will be damaged when it gets back out into the cold. When you decorate it, be careful not to break or scratch branches with the ornaments, and make sure the lights won't scorch it. Keep the tree's roots moist.
When you buy the tree, immediately dig a hole in your yard where you want to plant it. The hole should be slightly larger than the tree's root ball. Then, you should fill the hole with leaves or mulch; this saves lots of time (and effort at digging in frozen ground) so you can spend more time on holiday festivities later.
After the holidays, immediately plant the tree in the hole you dug earlier. Don't fertilize it, but use plenty of mulch.
Sources: this is an expansion of a story I wrote that appeared in a holiday edition of the Indiana Daily Student. Information for new sections was gleaned from http://www.msue.msu.edu/msue/imp/mod03/03900108.html, http://www.infoplease.com/spot/christmas2.html, and http://www.historytelevision.ca/archives/christmas/quickfacts/