History of the Christmas Tree


Ken Tilt and Bernice Fischman

It is unlikely that most Americans would imagine that George Washington's ragtag army's defeat of the Hessians in December, 1776, would be a pivotal moment in the history of the Christmas tree in the United States but there is more than a grain of truth in that statement. On Christmas eve in 1776 some of the 30,000 German mercenaries (Hessians) hired to aid the British troops, were in a joyful mood for two reasons: they were close to defeating George Washington's troops and it was Christmas Eve, a time of enthusiastic rejoicing with food, songs and decorated trees (early British settlers to North American colonies rarely observed Christmas and did not cut down or decorate trees). Not much attention was being paid to their military duties. Early on December 26th Washington and his army attacked and were able to defeat their usually well prepared foes.

After the war some Germans stayed in the United States and shared their traditions with their neighbors. The Christmas tree has a long history in Germany. Cutting down fir trees to be used in their holiday celebrations is documented in the early 1500's. This was such a popular practice that by 1561 an ordinance was passed limiting the size of trees cut to 8 feet. Decorations on these trees were elaborate - candles, sweets and dolls.

Christmas trees were not popular in England until the German influence prevailed in the 19th C. when Queen Victoria married a German nobleman, Prince Albert. The royal family was portrayed in the castle standing around a gloriously decorated tree. The English people took their cues from the royals and began decorating trees and placing presents under them. Other European countries have interesting traditions. For example, people in Finland decorate their trees with flags to remind them of the friendship among nations.

As Americans embraced the tradition of Christmas trees and depleted local supplies, it quickly became apparent that trees would have to be supplied by the vast American forests and then transported to cities and towns by land and/or sea. The first Christmas tree market developed in 1851 in New York City. Mr. Mark Carr, an entrepreneur from the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, began cutting down fir and spruce trees that grew in abundance and were virtually free. He filled two oxcarts with trees, hauled them to a ship bound for New York City, rented space at the Washington Market downtown for one dollar and promptly sold out. His family continued in the business until 1898. A great deal of competition followed their success. In those days small trees sold for 5 to 10 cents and 8-10' trees went for a quarter.

A number of families started Christmas tree farms that have supplied millions of trees over the years. Trees were harvested all over the country and different varieties were experimented with. Naturally re-seeded forests or abandoned pastures and farms were the main source of Christmas trees. In 1901 the first Christmas tree farm was begun with the planting of 25,000 Norway spruce near Trenton, New Jersey. Transplants and seedlings appeared to grow well in poor soil. These trees were harvested in 1908 and sold for $1.00 each.

Christmas tree farms often involve generations of families and today there are about 12,000 growers in the United States who work about a million acres to produce approximately 35,000,000 trees annually.

In Alabama, close to 100 Christmas Tree farms sell an average of 800 trees per year. Ninety percent of the farms are "Choose and Cut" operations where people go to the farms to cut their own fresh trees. This becomes a tradition for many Alabama families looking for an opportunity to catch the "Christmas Spirit." Trees grown and sold in Alabama include White Pine, Red Cedar, Virginia Pine and two new trees that have become very popular, Leyland Cypress and Arizona Cypress.

The industry has taken an almost complete turnaround since its humble beginnings when 90% of the trees were harvested from available forests and 10% were grown. Today 90% of the trees are grown on tree plantations where trees are cultivated, fertilized, sheared and cut in economically desirable ways. Attention is paid to conservation practices. With proper planning and forest management trees will be available for those who want them for a very long time.