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The centuries-old Christmas tree tradition

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EDITOR’S NOTE:The following is an article by Paul Hetzler, horticulture and natural resources educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

By PAUL HETZLER

Of all the memorable aromas of the holiday season, nothing evokes its spirit like the perfume of fresh-cut evergreen. Although more than 80 percent of American households where Christmas is observed use artificial trees, around 11 million families still use real trees.

Every species of conifer has its own mixture of sweet-smelling terpenols and esters that account for that “piney woods” perfume. While all natural Christmas trees share many of the same aromatic compounds, some people prefer the smell of a certain type of tree, possibly one they remember from childhood. Even if it turns out that using a polyvinylchloride tree is more eco-friendly than using a natural one, no chemistry lab will ever match the fragrance of fresh pine, fir or spruce in the house.

The origins of the Christmas tree are unclear, but according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmas.”

In Eastern Europe in the 15th century, decorated Christmas trees were erected inside guild halls. Then in 16th century Germany, Martin Luther apparently helped kindle, so to speak, the custom of the indoor home Christmas tree by bringing an evergreen tree into his house and decorating it with candles. For centuries, Christmas trees were brought into the house on Dec. 24and were not removed until after the Christian feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6.

In terms of New York State favorites, the firs—Douglas, balsam, and Fraser—are very popular, being the most aromatic evergreens. When kept in water, firs all have excellent needle retention. Scots and white pine also keep their needles well. While our native white pine is more fragrant than Scots, the latter far outsells the former, possibly because the sturdy Scots can bear quite a load of decorations without its branches drooping. Spruces have strong branches, but quickly shed their needles. They naturally have a good Christmas-tree shape, though none of them is very scented; in fact some think white spruce smells unpleasant.

This year, conifers in our region produced an unusually heavy cone crop. Even some young trees of Christmas-tree size are heavily “decorated” with cones. If you cut a tree locally you can probably find one laden with its own natural ornaments if that appeals to you.

For the most fragrance and the least mess (and fire hazard), cut a one- to two-inch “cookie” off the butt end before placing the tree in water, and top off the reservoir every two days. Products claiming to improve needle retention don’t work, according to research, so save your money. You’ll also save with LED tree lights, as they use much less power than conventional ones. Plus, they don’t dry out the tree nearly as fast.

Fire-safety advocates say to keep the tree away from heat sources, including electronics, and turn off the tree lights when you leave the room, even if only for a minute.

Whatever your holiday traditions, may your family, friends, and evergreens all be well-hydrated, sweet-scented and a source of good cheer.

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