Ah, Christmas. It is an unforgettable seasonal holiday celebrated annually on the 25th of December. Merchandise in red and green, Christmas carols, family gatherings, and cheery decorations are the staples of the holiday season. However, these symbols cannot outshine the iconic Christmas tree and its ornaments.
The Christmas tree has become iconic because of its rich history and the economy behind it. In the United States, there are around 25 to 30 million Christmas trees sold every year, accumulating over $27 million in profit with the average price of a tree at approximately $80 today.
Currently, more than 350 million Christmas trees are growing in approximately 15,000 plantations across the United States.
How is the Christmas Tree Christmas?
Before Christianity’s founding, evergreen trees were highly associated with winter in celebrations of numerous cultures during ancient times. Many of said festivals are related to the winter solstice, an event of the sun reaching its lowest in the sky as they believed that the sun gods became ill during winter, and celebrating him would help them recover. People decorated their homes with branches of evergreens to ward off witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and sickness.
During the 16th Century, dedicated German Christians brought evergreen trees back to their homes and hung apples on them as they represented the Garden of Eden to celebrate the feast of Adam and Eve on the 24th of December. In a shortage of wood, people assembled pyramids of wood and adorned them with branches and candles. Reputedly, Martin Luther, a well-known German priest, originated the first Christmas tree when he attempted to recapture the beauty of the twinkling stars for his family by hanging candles on a fir. After three centuries, Christmas trees are a major tradition in Germany. During the same period, glass ornaments were invented by Hans Greiner and Christoph Muller.
As Germans emigrated, they spread the Christmas tree tradition to other European countries, most notably England. In the 1790s, Queen Charlotte, the German-born consort of King George III, introduced the Christmas tree to Britain at a children’s Christmas party, but it was the German-born Prince Albert and Queen Victoria who popularized the Christmas tree with a photo in 1848. The picture contained the royal family standing in front of the Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. London news reporters quickly picked up on the Christmas tree, sparking the trend. After the photo was released to the public, Christmas trees became a Christmas icon.
Christmas trees were introduced to North America for the first time in 1781 during the invasion of Quebec by the Hessian mercenaries to boost their morale. In the early 19th century, the popularization of Christmas trees began in the United States by German immigrants to escape the failing economy and war. The first Christmas tree was hung in the 1830s by German settlers in Pennsylvania. During that time, Puritans were in control of the British colonies in North America, which resulted in many pagan symbols prohibited, including Christmas. This resulted in the outlawing of Christmas trees as many perceived it as “pagan mockery” that “defiled” Christmas. Many violators were penalized with heavy fines, and some were hanged. Nonetheless, the ban was lifted when the Puritans became a minority due to the growing German and Irish population. When Prince Albert and Queen Victoria released the photo, the popularity of the Christmas tree rose sharply.
To get a Christmas tree, families had to travel out to the middle of the woods, riding horses or carriages to get there, chop down the evergreen tree, load it up, and travel back to their homes. Most could not afford a horse or carriage or had the time and energy necessary to travel into the wilderness for the perfect tree. Seeing that the masses could not easily acquire the trees, Mark Carr, a New Yorker “woodsman,” took matters into his own hands.
A few weeks before Christmas, Carr and his sons journeyed to the forests nearby the Catskill Mountains located in southeastern New York with an ox carriage. The family reportedly chopped down 24 evergreen trees and loaded them up the cart. They then hauled their wares to New York’s Washington Market located in lower Manhattan, purchased a stall, then stocked his store with Christmas trees. Many locals were thrilled that they don’t need to go out of town anymore and bought his product. Carr, seeing an opportunity to make it big, continued his business which continued until 1989. Inspired by Carr’s success, other farmers began selling their Christmas trees as market demand is high, and thus, the Christmas tree industry was born.
In 1901, the first Christmas tree farm opened its doors in Trenton, New Jersey by W.V. McGalliad as he saw that Christmas trees grow well on his infertile farmland and overstocked trees can be converted into lumber. Furthermore, the Norway spruce had the right characteristics to appeal to customers. He planted 25,000 Norway spruces on his plantation and set the price of each tree at $1, which is the equivalent of almost $35 on October 2022.
Other farms used evergreen species that have the desirable height, shape, needle, branch, and fragrance for the market, such as Douglas fir, Balsam fir, Scotch pine, and many others.
Tradition Meets Modernity
Back in the day, many people hung homemade ornaments, for example, dyed popcorn, apples, nuts, or candles. Since there was a possibility of the tree catching fire due to the burning candle, Edward H. John, a New Yorker businessman, strived to solve the problem by inventing the first Christmas lights.
Electricity was invented by Thomas Edison on October 1879, and he designed the world’s first electric Christmas lights in 1882. However, due to the public’s distrust of electricity and expensive prices, John’s invention hadn’t hit the mainstream. President Cleveland and Coolidge requested the presidential Christmas tree to be illuminated by lights in 1895 and 1923 respectively, but it hadn’t sparked any craze for it. Albert Sadacca was inspired to sell Christmas lights at a cheap price as he saw potential and his family owned a lighting company in the 1920s, causing the massive craze of Christmas lights we know today.
As the Christmas tree industry grew throughout the world, deforestation became an issue within the Christmas tree industry, especially in Germany where the tradition originated. Germans developed the world’s first manmade Christmas tree made out of dyed goose feathers in the 1880s. Slowly, other countries began transitioning away from real Christmas trees in favor of alternatives. The introduction of Addis Brush’s fake Christmas tree caused a massive boom in the sales of Christmas trees in the 1900s. Addis Brush Company, a producer of toilet brushes, had made an oversupply of toilet brushes, so they made some improvisations. Dying the brushes green and assembling them, the company has made its first lines of Christmas trees. It gained popularity as its small size and price are suitable for many families. Later on, manufacturers began making aluminum and PVC Christmas trees in the 1950s and 1980s respectively.
Workers decorating the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in December 1931
Christmas trees have become a major icon for Christmas because it was placed all over the states, ranging from homes to schools to offices to skyscrapers, namely the Rockefeller Center. In December of 1931, the first Christmas tree was set on a construction site of the Rockefeller Center by Italian-American workers. The Great Depression had just devastated the world’s economy. People brought any kind of decorations they could find; paper garlands, cranberries, and tin cans were all hung onto the tree. Two years later, the Rockefeller Center erected its official Norway Spruce, creating a sensation for locals and tourists alike. Every winter afterward, the Rockefeller Christmas tree became a wintertime symbol of hope.
In 1988, the National Christmas Tree Industry reported that there are approximately 34.1 million Christmas trees sold nationwide with a wholesale value of $680 million.
The Tree Today
Today, the Christmas tree industry has metamorphosized into something brand new. There are more than 15,000 Christmas tree plantations across the United States with more than 100,000 workers employed. Oregon is considered the state with the most Christmas tree farms as it has more than 1,000 farms. The estimated number of Christmas trees grown in the United States is 350 million trees, resulting in the value of the live Christmas tree industry being $1 billion in 2021. Farmers can earn an average of $9 per tree.
Despite the high number of Christmas tree farms founded, demand for live Christmas trees lowered as people became environmentally conscious, manufacturing has become streamlined, the prices dropped, and the aesthetics of manmade trees improved. Reportedly, 82% of Americans elected to purchase fake Christmas trees instead of living ones with 78 million artificial trees across the United States in 2020. The increase in the popularity of fake trees has stagnated the sales of live trees. In 2020, the value of the artificial Christmas trees industry is $1.2 billion, only $200 million higher than its live counterpart.
Because of the Christmas tree, the tradition has spread across the wide globe, absorbed into cultures, and global industry worth over two billion dollars.
Enjoy the holiday season!