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Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree!

The history and current reality
Tony Lowes

Teddy Roosevelt banned Christmas trees in the White House when he became President in 1901.  A famed outdoorsman and environmentalist, he highlighted the harvesting of trees for ornamentation as a blatant example of deforestation due to unnecessary commercial causes.  Was he right? Right or wrong, Roosevelt’s ban on Christmas Trees lasted just one year.  His two youngest sons – Archie (8) and Quentin (5) – dug up a tree from the White House grounds and installed it in the room where the family gathered for present-giving on Christmas day.  They brought the White House electrician in on the plot and he lit the tree, just 20 years after Thomas Edison’s assistant invented Christmas tree lights.

The twinkling Christmas tree has become one of the most persistent and pervasive icons of our civilisation, instantly recognisable and forever associated with the cheer and goodwill of the holiday season.  But in fact, the tradition is fairly recent, especially in Ireland.  The origins go back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia when part of the preparations included cutting a fir tree and bringing it into the house.  “Loose reins are given to public dissipation”, Seneca the Younger wrote.  “Everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business”.  Saturnalia was adopted by Christians in the fourth century with other pagan holidays.  By the seventh century, the custom of using greenery to celebrate the winter solstice had become a part of religious Christmas festivities.

Although often considered part of the Germanic tradition, the first decorated tree is generally credited to Riga in Latvia in 1515.  By the 1800s the custom had spread to England.  Queen Victoria’s diary for 1833 described “two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments”.  A photograph of Prince Albert and the family by the royal tree taken in 1850 was lifted by an American journal.  Victoria’s crown and Albert’s moustache were removed, and this iconic Christmas family photograph was adopted by a nation that now grows half a billion trees a year and boasts a collection of 80 million artificial trees.  There’s no stopping Christmas trees now, as Roosevelt discovered, albeit that he – and a large and vociferous press – tried his best.  This was, of course, in the days before Christmas trees were grown commercially and simply selected from forests.  In fact, when Roosevelt took his children to his Secretary of the Interior for a telling off, they listened instead to a lecture that suggested appropriate thinning produced a better timber from most forests.

According to the Irish Christmas Tree Growers Association [ICTGA], “Best of all when you buy a real Christmas Tree, carefully grown and cultured in Ireland there is that extra special knowledge that you are supporting nature and the environment”.  One Irish Christmas tree company proudly boasts that weed control is done by special varieties of sheep, making their trees “almost organic”.  Others point out that, “an acre of Christmas trees provides for the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people”.  Given the intensive nature of the cultivation, the use of fertilisers, growth regulators, and pesticides, these seem dubious boasts.  Certainly Coillte, our State Forest Board, got its fingers burnt in the Christmas tree market.  In 1990, their Chairman announced the planting of 500,000 trees that year, with a promise of the same number to be planted each year for the next six years. The entire Irish market is only 400,000 trees.  However, Coillte went to the frost-free West Coast of America for advice and species, rather than Europe, only to find that the chosen species – Noble Fir – was not frost-resistant.  Soil and elevation can be crucial; drainage and roads can cost more than the crop itself.  Management had insufficient knowledge of how to cultivate the trees to enable them to attain sufficient quality for the European market.  They used the traditional techniques of spruce growers of pruning, shearing, and weeding.  “This works effectively with spruces but less so with firs, and explains why the Irish market is now producing some poor quality specimens”, the UK trade journal Horticultural Week wrote as these trees came on the market.

The entire production of one Coillte Christmas tree farm had to be written off when the splints intended to straighten the leaders proved a cure worse than the illness.  50% of the trees on some farms were unsaleable.  Coillte tried to conceal its failure by inventing new grades for trees, subdividing the bottom of the three officially recognised classes of the ICTGA Quality Grading to try and hide the loses.  Coillte’s noble firs supplied to France in 1999 are alleged to have so blackened Ireland’s name that the export market was lost to any Irish firms the following year.  Price lists distributed in England at the time are also said to have made it impossible for Irish private firms to compete.  Coillte is no longer in the Christmas tree market but the charge persists today with alleged “dumping” by Coillte on the UK market of vast numbers of Sitka spruce.  Planting rates in Ireland have fallen far beyond unrealistically inflated Government predictions and consequently the production of Coillte’s over-stocked nurseries have been sold on the UK market, allegedly at below cost prices.

Coillte hasn’t been the only Irish grower to find that growing Christmas trees isn’t as easy as it might look.  While the spruce that now covers almost 10% of Ireland grows well just about anywhere, it makes a poor Christmas tree as the spiky needles quickly shed all over the floor – especially in today’s centrally heated homes.  Firs make the best Christmas trees, staying green and fragrant throughout the season.  But firs can be more difficult to grow well, with provenance critical and proper husbandry essential for a good crop.  Even a too heavy trunk can add unnecessary weight and put off less sturdy customers, who seek a lighter tree for ease of handling.  Noble fir has proven to be frost prone and subject to ‘current season needle necrosis’ turning the branches an unsightly brown just before harvest time as well as funguses spreading root rot.  Nordman fir is fairing better, but even the premier Irish grower, Emerald Christmas trees, has produced less than half the 400,000 trees projected 5 years ago.

Christmas trees are cyclical in nature.  It takes seven to ten years to grow a tree and in part because of the unfolding disasters that met the first Irish growers, there is a shortage of trees this year, not only in Ireland but right across Europe.  Even in Denmark, which began cultivating Nordman fir seed 25 years ago, more than 50% of their seed has to be imported from a politically unstable Georgia.  The shortage has doubled the price of these trees between 2004 and 2008.  This encourages the cowboys in the parking lots with their over-priced poor quality trees, turning customers off.

So what about trees in pots? Or renting trees? Or even – gasp – plastic trees? The disadvantage of trees sold in pots is that many of them are transplanted late on in their growth cycle.  The reduction in roots gives them a poor chance of long term survival, even if the changes in temperature and moisture don’t do them in.  Renting trees is now standard practice for commercial companies, and they include decoration and removal.  Some of these are properly grown in containers and kept on under optimum controlled conditions from one year to the next – adding, of course, to their carbon footprint.  And plastic trees? The plastic used in Christmas trees is the same one used in plastic bags.  The molecular bonds that make plastic so durable make it equally resistant to natural processes of degradation; they can persist in landfills for hundreds of years.  Since the 1950s, one billion tons of plastic has been discarded and much of it has ended up in the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.  Until about 5 years ago, lead was en essential component of the artificial tree, particularly in China, leading to concerns by US Health authorities.  Most trees are now made of recycled PVC rigid sheets using tin as a stabilizer.  But are they ‘better’ for the environment? Kaj Ostergaard, the Chairman of the Danish Christmas Tree Growers Association, says that “compared to agriculture, we are the good guys”, citing the lower application of fertilisers to make his point.

The debate is ongoing.  In February of this year a Canadian study undertook to compare the ‘life cycle analyses’ of artificial vs natural Christmas trees.  On an annual basis, the natural tree contributes significantly less carbon dioxide emission (39%) than the artificial tree.  They are roughly equivalent in terms of human health impacts.  The artificial tree is almost four times better on ecosystem quality but has three times more impacts on climate change and resource depletion than the natural tree.  Nevertheless, because the impacts of the artificial trees occur at the production stage, and since it can be reused multiple times, if the artificial tree were kept longer it would become a better solution than the natural tree.  It would take, however, approximately 20 years of use before the artificial tree would become a better solution regarding climate change.

My own family tradition includes a hand-painted tree.  Each Christmas Eve a roll of brown paper was stretched on the floor and the poster-paints came out.  By the end of the evening, the brightest and finest of trees was ready to hang on the wall.  Whatever you decide, it is now clear from the study that, regardless of the chosen type of tree, the impacts on the environment are negligible compared to other greenhouse gas producers – the car, or the central heating.  We may not be able to go back to the old ways – pre 1940 – in Ireland, where outbuildings were painted and mistletoe and holly decorated the houses.  But if you turn your heating down, you’ll be doing your tree a favour – and you’ll easily offset any carbon footprint the tree brings with it.  Then you can get on with the Saturnalia with a clean environmental conscience.