Oh, Christmas tree, oh, Christmas tree


"I will not kill another living tree for Christmas," announced a waitress at a restaurant I frequent. It is a common misconception that cutting a fir at Christmas is killing a tree that will otherwise live.

"Christmas trees are grown to be cut," I said sagely. "That is their reason for being." Then I recounted the story of a longtime friend who bought a live, balled tree every year for the last 30 years and lovingly planted each one near her farmhouse. The trees had grown so large, they shaded her garden and cut off light to her sun room. Last spring, she cut down five of the aging Christmas trees, one of them 30 years old. This winter the trunks of those Christmas trees planted decades ago are yule logs, warming her farmhouse.

Sooner or later, Christmas trees help us celebrate Christmas. They bring the outdoors in, and who cares if a few hundred pine needles litter the floor?

Oregon has more than 750 licensed Christmas tree growers who cut more than 8 million of the 25-30 million trees cut nationally each year. Almost half of Oregon’s trees go to California, while more than one million trees are exported outside the United States — to Japan, Mexico, Canada and Asia.

Most of the trees we see as we drive along the highway in the Northwest are Douglas fir, but they will never grow up to be the "money tree" beloved of the timber industry. Christmas trees — Douglas fir, Grand fir or the popular Noble fir — are grown in plantations. There they are "cultured," deliberately grown with denser limbs than trees found in the wild; by trimming the boughs each year, they grow so you can hang more ornaments on them. They are cut and shipped to market after three or four years.

There is no more sorry sight than an abandoned Christmas tree farm. Trees are planted so densely they begin crowding each other out after five years or so. Weaker trees die, topped out by stronger trees, and become a fire hazard.

Don’t worry about the Christmas trees that you are allowed to cut on public lands. The Forest Service deliberately steers you to "overstocked stands" where the small tree you cut and take home would eventually be crowded out by its bigger brothers and left to die anyway. In exchange for thinning the public forest for the Forest Service, you get a "natural" tree that lends that "over the river and through the woods" New England flavor to your holiday.

The tree is brought back in a pickup or SUV instead of a sled and is probably cut down by a chain saw instead of an ax. But no matter. A "natural" tree is an experience, not just a purchase.

Our traditional view of Christmas comes from our English roots and our nation’s New England beginnings. There’s is no place like home for the holidays like the hearth of a New England farmhouse. A rock fireplace is required equipment. Town is a country crossroads and white clapboard churches with their spires reaching heavenward, and snow-covered red barns where the cattle are lowing. It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that Charles Dickens invented Christmas as we know it when he published "A Christmas Carol in Prose, being a Ghost Story of Christmas" in 1843. We’re still reading the story of Tiny Tim, and maybe we always will.

Today, some folks are unpacking fake trees and fluffing up their artificial limbs. Others are dispensing with the Christmas tree ritual altogether, either from the mistaken notion they are killing a tree that would otherwise live, or simply because there isn’t enough time. Life is just too busy.

Some of us will always make the time. In my family, ornaments are unearthed from boxes that date back to childhood. It is a thin but durable tie to the family in a day when the parents have passed away and the rest of the clan may be scattered over the country, maybe even around the world. We need a Christmas tree to make us feel whole.

Russell Sadler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Eugene, Oregon.

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