A Christmas tree is synonymous with the holiday season as much as gift-giving overload; fun but mildly dysfunctional family get-togethers; and otherwise cringe-worthy but enjoyable “seasonal” music.
But do you know where your tree comes from? Should you have gotten a fancy plastic one with pre-attached lights?
Are millions of real tree caracasses that end up in dumpsters January 1st really better for the environment?
And who are those scruffy out-of-towners in New York City and other urban corners selling “real Canadian” firs?
We’ll tell you.
The use of evergreens as a 'symbol and celebration of life during Winter Solstice celebrations' started in ancient Roman and Egyptian times. It evolved over the centuries to be incorporated into Christmas celebrations in the Germanic areas of Europe, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
Christmas trees as we know them have been around for more than 500 years.
According to the NCTA, the first decorated Christmas tree was in Riga, Latvia in 1510. Early Christmas trees were decorated with paper, fruits, and sweets.
By 1531, the first retail Christmas tree lots are started in German cities.
In 1777, the tradition of the Christmas tree is brought to colonial America by Hessian troops fighting for Britain in the Revolution War.
Trees made their way to New York City in 1851, when Mark Carr opened a retail Christmas tree lot in the city, the first in the United States.
The first White House Christmas tree was brought in by President Franklin Pierce in 1856.
Pictured: President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy pose in front of the Christmas tree in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington on Dec. 13, 1961.
Each year, 30 to 35 million American families get a holiday tree, according to the NCTA.
Virtually all of them -- roughly 98% -- come from farms. There are close to 350 million Christmas trees currently growing on tree farms in the U.S., using about 350,000 acres.
There are close to 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the U.S. and more than 100,000 people employed full or part-time in the industry.
The U.S. retail market was worth $1.03 billion in 2008, according to the consumer tracking survey commissioned by NCTA and conducted by Harris Interactive.
Most Christmas trees come from farms, but many are bought in-doors.
According to the NCTA, 31% were bought at farms in 2008, but 24% came from chain stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. Non-profit groups like churches or Boy Scouts sold another 18%; 7% came from retail lots; and 11% from nurseries and garden centres.
Significant amounts of Christmas trees bought in the U.S. come from Canada.
According to the Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association, the country harvests approximately 5.5 million Christmas trees annually.
In 2008, Canada exported 1.8 million trees, worth $34.2 million, according to the Canadian government. Of that amount, nearly $32 million worth were exported to the U.S.
Canadian trees also go to Central and South America (especially Mexico) and the Caribbean islands.
Despite the exports, Canada also imports U.S. trees. According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Mexico is the fourth largest market for U.S. Christmas tree exports behind the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada.
Mexico recently levied a 20% tax on U.S. Christmas trees in retaliation for a NAFTA trucking spat, making traditionally more expensive Canadian firs, which remain duty-free, more attractive.
Mexico has also started to grow its own trees, according to the USDA, and hopes to rid itself of imported trees one day.
For every Christmas tree cut, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring, according to the NCTA.
It can take as many as 15 years to grow a tree of typical height (six to seven feet) or as little as four years, but the average growing time is seven.
The top producing U.S. states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.
New York City has a long tradition of temporary street vendors that pop on blocks across the Big Apple in December.
Tree farmers haul firs in from states like Pennsylvania and Vermont or down from Canada. Then they or a short-term hire sit with the trees either all day or all night -- usually for 12 hour shifts -- usually with little more than a small heated trailer or impromptu shack and a radio.
Many of the street vendors are French Canadian, while others are young Americans or Europeans eager for temporary work and adventure.
Vendors actually do not need a permit from the city because of the 'Conifer Clause.' The New York Times explains:
But Christmas tree vendors need neither permits nor First Amendment protection to spread their holiday cheer. They are entitled to what might be called the ''coniferous tree'' exception, adopted by the City Council in 1938 over the veto of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. The city's administrative code allows that ''storekeepers and peddlers may sell and display coniferous trees during the month of December'' on a city sidewalk without a permit, as long as they have the permission of owners fronting the sidewalk and keep a corridor open for pedestrians. (The law originally cited Christmas trees, but the religious reference was removed in 1984.)
A sizable number forgo the traditional real tree for a fake.
Last year, all sales were down, especially for artificial trees. According to an NCTA poll, U.S. consumers purchased 28.2 million farm-grown trees (down 10%) and 11.7 million artificial trees in 2008 (down 35%).
Says the NCTA: 'Many factors can influence total trees purchased, including harvest conditions, weather conditions, number of consumers travelling for the holidays and even the number of days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.'
Artificial trees come in many colours and shapes.
Retail sites like Treetopia.com sell pink, blue and American flag trees. 80 per cent of artificial trees worldwide are manufactured in China, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
International companies like Polygroup employ thousands of workers at multi-million square-foot factories that pump out hundreds of different types of trees made of plastics and metals.
As a report in Slate noted, that includes green, gold, silver, flocked, frosted, pre-lighted, and fibre-optic. Some even 'spray snow, some have real pine cones, some play music, some rotate, and some count down to New Year's and then launch into 'Auld Lang Syne.''
Every year, many decide between real and fake trees, but it's a tricky calculation.
Two industry associations try and push consumers in either direction. The NCTA, which represents the real tree farmers, emphasises the irreplacable aesthetics and environmental sustainability of natural firs.
On the other hand, the American Christmas Tree Association notes the higher costs over time and potential dangers -- fire, pollen, mould -- of real trees.
The ACTA says that based on a 10 year analysis, the 'purchase of a single pre-lit artificial Christmas tree costs 70% less than the purchase of 10 real Christmas trees over the same period. With many consumers keeping their artificial tree for 20 years or more, the savings are even greater.'
Artificial trees are, well, artificial, but are they better for the environment?
A study sponsored by the ACTA (which represents fake tree businesses) found that the carbon footprint of artificial trees was actually lower.
'Owning an artificial Christmas tree is healthier for the environment over a 10 year period than using real trees,' notes the ACTA, which included 'analysing each stage of the life cycle of natural Christmas trees, from seedling through commercial farming, cultivation and harvesting, transport to retail, transport to consumer homes, and finally transport and disposal. The study also examined the manufacturing of an artificial tree including resource harvesting, raw material transport, each stage of the manufacturing process, transport to retail, transport to consumer homes, and finally transport and disposal.'
The NCTA fires back on its site: 'That's a very short-sighted perspective. According to research, most fake trees are only used 6 to 9 years before they're disposed. Even if you would use one for 20 years or more, it will eventually be thrown away and end up in a landfill. And unlike Real Trees, which are biodegradable and recyclable, fake trees are always a burden to the environment.'
Enterprising tree seekers can forget the farm versus fake debate and cut their own.
U.S. national parks sell cutting permits, usually for $10 or less.
As NPR's Marketplace noted recently, the program existed since the late 1940's, but the Forest Service says permit sales have increased 50 per cent in the last two years. Maybe it's the recession.
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