Tannenbaum to Christmas tree
13:12 16 December 2014
Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a Christmas tree, but what are they and why do we do it? Liz Hamilton of the county Campaign to Protect Rural England group, looks at how bringing a live tree into our homes this season has gone from German-inspired royal fashion to multi-million pound industry
The tradition of bringing a whole evergreen or fir tree into the house for Christmas began in Germany in the 16th century, and possibly earlier elsewhere in Europe. Bringing evergreen foliage indoors as a symbol of everlasting life to celebrate the turn of the year (the longest day) is undoubtedly a much older custom.
In England in 1800 George III’s German wife Queen Charlotte introduced a decorated Christmas tree into the Royal household, but the idea was not widely copied. The custom only became more widespread after Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert popularised Christmas trees in the 1840’s. Now eight million real Christmas trees grown in Britain are sold each year.
The species used traditionally for Christmas trees is Norway spruce, an evergreen conifer (meaning cone-bearing) native to a wide area of Europe but not Britain. Its stiff branches and conical shape can support candles, decorations and presents!
It is hardly surprising that Christmas trees failed to catch on in early 19th century England – there simply weren’t enough suitable evergreen trees in the country. None of the three conifers native to Britain can compare to the Norway spruce. Juniper and yew are quite rare, while Scot’s pine has lax long-needled foliage especially when young, a potential fire-hazard when lighted candles were common.
We know from tree pollen preserved in wet places that there were once more conifer species growing in what is now Britain. Before the global cooling which lead to the Ice Age (which began about two and a half million years ago) silver firs, spruces and hemlocks (Tsuga species now only native in North America and Asia) grew with the more familiar pines and deciduous trees.
In Britain during the Ice Age, seven major cold periods, with arctic conditions too cold for trees, were interspersed with warmer periods (interglacials) when average temperatures up to 4˚C higher than today allowed woodland to flourish. Around 450,000 years ago, a glacier covered part of Hertfordshire, and deposits found in the county dating from the warm period immediately following contained spruce and fir pollen. Botanists are unclear why these species failed to return after the most recent cold period came to an end around 12,000 years ago.
Some conifers had been brought to Britain by the 16th century, including Norway spruce. Later introductions mirror the exploration of the globe, with many arriving in the 19th century from Asia and western North America. At first, they mainly grew in private and botanical gardens but from the end of the 18th century plantations of conifers – especially of European larch (which drops its needles in winter), Norway spruce and Scot’s pine – were established for timber. In plantations trees planted close together are thinned to allow those remaining room to grow. Trees like oak and ash were often interspersed with rows of conifers for shelter; later the conifer ‘nurse’ crop was removed. Initially these plantations were on a small scale, but by the mid-19th century there were undoubtedly enough spruce thinnings to supply the burgeoning demand for Christmas trees.
Even with the new plantations Britain still relied heavily on imported timber. During the First World War German submarine blockades severely reduced this supply, and in 1919 the Forestry Commission was set up to secure future home-grown supplies. Many of the new plantations in the uplands and on poorer land were monocultures of Sitka spruce, a species native to the west coast of North America which grows very well in the wetter areas of Britain. The changes to much-loved landscapes were not popular and conifers began to get a bad name. Meanwhile in counties like Hertfordshire, planting conifers into ancient woodland caused woodland flowers such as bluebells to decline.
For most of the last century, Norway spruce remained the conifer species of choice for Christmas trees. Increasingly, supplies have come from dedicated Christmas tree farms in Britain and elsewhere. Norway spruce though is no match for either the drying effect of central heating or our tendency to bring decorations inside earlier in December: often the needles start to fall long before twelfth night.
Several alternative species are now offered, the most widely-available being Nordmann fir, also known as Caucasian fir since it is native to the Caucasus mountains as well as neighbouring parts of Turkey. Like all trees in this genus (more correctly called silver firs) this species has stiff branches bearing rows of flat needles distinguished by white bands on their undersides. Slow-growing initially with closely-spaced branches creating an ideal conical shape, Nordmann fir seems better able to withstand the warmth of our homes without dropping its needles, so looks set to become the tree of choice at this season.