Putting up a Christmas tree during the holidays has a long, rich history. It began as an ancient ritual and is now a worldwide Yuletide tradition. In December, you can see these festive trees everywhere, from shopping plazas and hotel lobbies to government buildings and personal homes. Just like singing Christmas carols door-to-door, this long-standing holiday centerpiece is so ingrained in our Yuletide traditions, and there are a wide variety of species that grow across the globe.
Here’s a breakdown of tree types and the history behind them.
Brief History of Christmas Trees
The tradition of the Christmas tree originated in the 16th century, when Europeans celebrated the winter solstice by hanging evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In honor of their god Saturn, early Romans celebrated the Feast of Saturnalia by decorating their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. Ancient Egyptians filled their home with palm branches as a symbol of life, as their god Ra was believed to become weak whenever winter arrived. The first documented use of a tree at Christmas is in Riga, Latvia in 1510, when people decorated a tree with artificial roses, danced around it in the marketplace, and then set it on fire.
From such ancient customs, the Christmas tree became a venerated tradition of devout Christians as Christianity spread throughout Europe. Dramas called Paradise Plays depicting biblical themes began as part of the church’s worship. These plays told the story of Adam and Eve, and the actors would decorate a pine tree with apples to represent the Tree of Knowledge. People soon adopted this practice and began putting up trees decorated with lights, apples, and tinsel in their own homes.
In the 19th century, aside from political and economic motivations, the power struggle between the Prussian state and the Catholic Church led the Germans to leave their country. This migration brought Christianity to new countries, and expanded the tradition of Christmas trees, despite being viewed as an odd custom by many. In the United States, it took decades for the Christmas tree to be adopted, only having been commercially sold starting in 1851. Today, approximately 25-30 million real Christmas trees are sold each year in the country.
Where do Christmas Trees Grow?
Traditionally, agricultural land not suited for production of other crops was used for Christmas tree cultivation. However, along with safety risks presented by these “wastelands”, a shift in producing high-quality products led growers to plant Christmas trees in more desirable sites.
Today, Christmas trees are grown in all 50 of the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska, in Christmas tree farms. According to the 2012 data of the USDA Census of Agriculture, the top five tree-producing states were:
- Oregon (more than 6.4 million)
- North Carolina (4.2 million)
- Michigan (1.7 million)
- Pennsylvania (1 million)
- Wisconsin (611,000)
Land and climate conditions play significant factors in the production and distribution of Christmas trees across the country. As such, 98% of all Christmas trees are grown on farms where land and climate conditions can be carefully selected and maintained to produce high-quality Christmas trees.
Preferably, land should be gently sloping to provide air and surface water drainage. As cold air settles to the base of slopes or in valleys, trees that are sensitive to frost should not be planted in these areas because it may damage or delay tree growth.
Soil type and fertility affect the quality of the Christmas tree as well. Trees like pines will grow on a variety of soil types, but spruces and firs will thrive in well-drained, loamy soil. Levels of soil fertility should also be monitored to determine the amount of nutrients and make soil amendments if necessary. The USDA provides a soil survey of the different states for a more informed selection of Christmas tree sites.
Outside tree farms, Christmas trees naturally grow in different ranges. While certain firs are distributed over large areas, some are found in moist, middle elevation ranges in coniferous forests while others grow only at elevations above 4,500 feet. There are trees that can withstand extreme hot or cold temperature conditions. Also, although adaptable, certain pine trees do not grow as well in tree farms as they do in their native habitat.
What are the Most Popular Christmas Trees?
Each Christmas tree has a particular set of characteristics that makes them unique to where they grow. Whether for their profile, color, or fragrance, some trees are more preferred than others. In 2014, the USDA Census of Agriculture released a list of Christmas trees sold by species. The top five most popular trees in terms of numbers sold were:
- Fraser Fir (more than 7.6 million)
Named after John Fraser, a Scot botanist who explored the southern Appalachian Mountains in the late 18th century, the Fraser Fir is one of the most popular Christmas trees because of its good form, needle retention, dark blue-green foliage, and pleasant scent. It reaches a maximum height of 80 feet and a diameter of 1 to 1.5 feet, and naturally grows from Southwest Virginia to Eastern Tennessee.
- Noble Fir (more than 4.8 million)
These beautifully symmetrical trees grow to over 200 feet in height. Known for their stiff branches and longevity, Noble Firs have bluish-green 1-inch needles that turn upward to expose the lower branches. They are native to the Siskiyou Mountains of Northern California, and the Cascade and Coastal ranges of Oregon and Washington.
- Douglas Fir (3.9 million)
This wide ranging species grows from 70 to 250 feet tall. Radiating out in all directions from the branch, its soft needles are dark green to blue green in color, grow 1–1 ½ inches in length, and have a sweet fragrance when crushed. The range of Douglas firs includes Central California, Western Oregon and Washington, parts of the Rockies, and extends north to Alaska.
- Balsam Fir (779,000)
A species that thrives in cooler climates, the Balsam Fir generally reaches 40–60 feet in height and 1–1 ½ feet in diameter. It exhibits a pyramidal crown with a slender spire-like tip and relatively dense dark-green foliage. Named for the resinous blisters found in the bark, Balsam Firs occur naturally from northern Alberta to Labrador, and southward to Pennsylvania.
- Scotch Pine (468, 000)
A native to Eurasia, particularly from Scotland, Scotch Pines are known for their dark green foliage, needle retention, and stiff branches, which are well suited for decorating with heavy ornaments. Mature trees may exceed 125 feet in height and reach 30 inches in diameter. These are grown in the Eastern United States and across Southern Canada.
Whether found in tree farms or in natural ranges, Christmas trees are part of our holiday traditions. The unique features of each species are the inspiration for Tree Classics’ wide selection of artificial trees. Visit our site to see how closely we’ve captured nature’s beauty.