O Tannenbaum: A Christmas Tree Primer

O Tannenbaum: A Christmas Tree Primer

By Melanie Gold

What says “Christmas” more than an evergreen tree? The decorated tree is a well-known symbol of the Christmas holiday, acting as a backdrop for decorations from the primitive to the fanciful, and is at the center of gift giving. Whether you opt for a tabletop version or something that fills a great room, you’ll want to read this primer on how to make the most of your holiday tannenbaum.


Pre-Christian people from around the globe used evergreens at the winter solstice to celebrate life or as adornments to ward off evil spirits and bad mojo. Ancient peoples from northern Europe to North Africa used evergreen cuttings to symbolize earthly and spiritual renewal. Credit goes to the Germans, however, for the first Christmas tree, in the 1500s. Around that same time, the first tannenbaum song was written, though the best-known version, “O Tannenbaum,” was written nearly 300 years later.

Because Puritan colonies banned the Christmas tree as a desecration of a sacred, serious holiday, Pennsylvania became the home of the first decorated Christmas trees in America. Pennsylvania German (also known as Pennsylvania Dutch) families used whatever items were plentiful, such as harvest fruits and berries, nuts, and cookies (such as gingerbread and anise-flavored springerle) to decorate their trees. The trees started off modest and small, and as the middle class grew, so did the size of their Christmas trees. Modest gifts, which were placed in the tree, morphed into oversized gifts that were placed under the tree.

People tend to choose trees that are too large, because their perspective is off when there is no ceiling or walls to guide the eye.

Britain’s Queen Victoria is often credited with popularizing the indoor Christmas tree, but it was actually her German husband, Prince Albert, who spread the idea by sending decorated trees to some British schools and army barracks. An illustration of the royal family celebrating in front of a Christmas tree was published in a London newspaper in 1848, causing a craze for holiday trees that spread throughout the British Empire.

Back in America, the first national Christmas tree was displayed in Washington, D.C., in the 1920s. The first tree at Rockefeller Center was unveiled in the 1930s, small and unadorned. Today the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree averages 75 feet, holds tens of thousands of lights, and prompts prime-time television coverage for its lighting. (Incidentally, the 2011 Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center was a 74-foot Norway spruce from a tree farm in the Bloomsburg area, just northwest of the Lehigh Valley.)

Selecting a Live Tree

Lehigh Valley residents looking for indoor Christmas trees can find many varieties throughout the region, found in nearly every town, from backyard lots to sprawling tree farms. The most common Christmas trees tend to be softwood conifers – specifically firs, though the conifer family includes pines, spruces, cedars, cypresses, yews and others. Preferences are largely based on needle type, scent, and longevity of the tree once it’s been cut. Firs are popular choices because they are most likely to retain their needles from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and are easier to clean up. They also have pleasing aromas.

“By far, the most popular tree we sell is the Douglas Fir,” says Roger Unangst of Unangst Tree Farm in Bath. “It’s been the most popular tree for thirty to thirty-five years, though its popularity is waning.” He adds that people tend to choose a tree based on aesthetics, and that the trend is now leaning toward the more traditional “open” look of a Fraser fir, which has fewer branches than the Douglas and allows for hanging ornaments inside the tree, not just on the tips.

The National Christmas Tree Association advises measuring both the height and width of the space available before heading out to the tree lot or farm. “We joke with our customers that every tree grows a foot on the way home,” says Unangst. People tend to choose trees that are too large, because their perspective is off when there are no ceilings or walls to guide the eye. And they don’t bring their measuring devices to the tree farm, either.

Once there, select a tree that will be well suited to hold the ornaments that will be placed on it (heavy ornaments might require stiffer needles and sturdier branches), and test the tree for needle loss, especially if it is precut. (For more information on selecting a tree, visit realchristmastrees.org.)

They also may not bargain for the possible allergic reactions that could come with a live tree in the home. Though the evidence is anecdotal, some experts suggest that mold growth on live Christmas trees may trigger allergy symptoms. Studies have shown that high levels of mold spores in the air can incite bouts of allergic rhinitis, increased incidents of asthma, and asthma-related hospitalizations.

A 2007 study in Connecticut showed that the mold spore count went from 800 to 5,000 within only two weeks of bringing a Christmas tree into the home. The link between Christmas tree mold spores as the cause of allergic reactions is inconclusive, however, and artificial trees may not be the answer either, since they may also contain allergens such as dust. (For more information, see “Holiday Allergies” at aafa.org.)

Post-Holiday Care

Christmas trees are a renewal resource, so retailers say consumers shouldn’t feel bad about choosing a cut Christmas tree. After the holidays, discarded trees can provide shelter for squirrels, birds and rabbits; prevent soil erosion in ponds, lakes and rivers; and aid in sand dune preservation in coastal areas. They also provide refuge and habitats for fresh- and saltwater fish.

Most industry experts advise against buying a tree containing a root ball, to be transplanted after the holidays. They cite several reasons, but the main one is that the tree is likely to die, first by shocking it by bringing it into the home, then shocking it again by transplanting back outside. (For more information on caring for a live tree, visit http://extension.psu.edu/Northampton)

“The tree went dormant in September; it’s sleeping,” says Unangst. “The worst thing you can do is take a dormant tree and put it in a 70-degree environment. It’s going to start producing sap, and any molds or fungus are also going to wake up.” Transplanting it shocks the tree a second time.

“Sometimes people want to donate their Christmas trees, but we really can’t accommodate them,” says Kelly Austin, curator for the William F. Curtis Arboretum at Cedar Crest College in Allentown. “Trees are often dropped off during holiday break,” but since the arboretum is closed for the holidays, she says dropped-off trees usually die from exposure to the elements and lack of water. In fact, most arboretums do not accept donations, because they select special species or for unusual characteristics that they want to showcase. Instead, call ahead to find out if your local park takes donations or if your community center has a program for collecting donated trees.

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