There’s something primal about the urge to bring evergreen into the home as winter begins. The clean, piney scent, the lush color when all other trees have shed their leaves; these feel like reminders that even though the earth is locked in deep freeze, nature is invincible. Warmth and growth will return.
This may be why evergreen boughs were used in solstice and midwinter decor for centuries before Christianity got into the act. The custom of bringing greenery indoors and decorating it began, as far as anyone can tell, in the ancient Middle East. Egyptians used date palm leaves. Romans decorated Saturnalia trees and made wreaths for their homes. For the most part, European pagan traditions frowned on taking a whole tree from the forest, preferring clippings and branches.
In case you didn’t know and were wondering, evergreens stay evergreen through the use of genius-level adaptive skills. Evergreens evolved in cold climates. Their needles are actually very tightly rolled leaves coated in natural wax, ideal for conserving water while grabbing whatever light might strike them to use in photosynthesis. Evergreens are survivors.
The first association of Christmas trees and the Christian celebration of Christmas is the subject of an ongoing debate (hopefully a friendly debate) between Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia. Tallinn folks say they had a tree in the year 1441; Latvians claim the 1510 tree in Riga was the first, and have erected a sign that says so in eight languages.
Either way, everyone agrees that the folks who happened on the bright idea were members of a society of single men—ship owners, merchants, and foreigners—who called themselves the Brotherhood of Blackheads. The Blackheads were a military organization, first founded when a group of foreign merchants won a 14th-century battle that kept Tallinn safe for Christianity. (The folks trying to eradicate the Christians were the indigenous Estonians, and they might have had a point, but it’s lost in time.) The church was grateful, and formed agreements with the society, one of which was that the Blackheads would decorate altars to Saint Mary.
Whether in Tallinn in 1441 or in Riga sixty-nine years later, there also seems to be a consensus that the tree was located in the town square, where the Blackheads would dance around it and ultimately set it ablaze in a Yule Log touch. The whole thing probably made “Santa comes to Woodstock” look a bit tame. (The Blackheads still exist; they have a Web page, but have shed their militarism in favor of socializing and sport.)
There are not two but three different stories from 16th century Germany about how the Christmas tree became an indoor symbol. Either 1) Martin Luther fell in spiritual love with evergreens; 2) St. Boniface cut down an oak that a Pagan group had been worshipping or 3) a poor family took in a shivering peasant boy on a chilly night, who then turned out to be Jesus in peasant garb and gave them the branch of a fir tree as a keepsake.
Regardless, the idea of bringing a tree indoors became a big hit with Germans, and soon fine artists and glass blowers were making decorations. Tinsel, however, was originated by a thoughtful spider who felt sorry for a poor family who couldn’t afford fancy decorations and spun a web, which the saints then turned into precious metal—or so goes the story. Actual tinsel having been created at first from tiny strips of beaten silver, it seems unlikely that it was a feature on most peasant trees at the time. A spider in your Christmas tree, however, is still considered a sign of good luck in some areas.
Yet it was not uncontroversial, this tree thing. Puritans, who held Parliament for a while in the 17th century, banned Christmas trees (and indeed, most of the holiday’s festive customs) as Popish and pagan. Groups like the French revolutionary Cult of Reason and the Soviet League of Militant Atheists disapproved for reasons of their own.
It was Queen Victoria’s German-born schnookums, Prince Albert, who brought the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in 1841. Come 1848 (the news cycle being a little different back then) a picture of the Queen’s tree made it into the London News and then into the Philadelphia-published Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850, making it the epitome of home design fashion. And it was an American, Ralph Morris, who designed the first electric Christmas tree lights, meaning that fewer of those homes would burn down.
Coming into the 20th century, Christmas trees had become so popular that the natural supply was running low. Artificial trees came into fashion, made of all sorts of materials, even feathers. But somehow, nothing ever quite replaced the scent of pine and the feel of sharing your living space with the real deal. The first Christmas tree farm was planted in New Jersey in 1901; in the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt added one to his Hyde Park estate.
Even with cut Christmas trees widely available (the National Christmas Tree Association was founded in 1966) some people still hungered for the experience of finding and harvesting one for themselves, leading to the still-growing popularity of “choose and cut” farms. To many families, the journey to a tree farm to select the perfect tree has become a cherished way to kick off holiday celebrations.
In return, Christmas tree farms have added perks like hot chocolate and throw out a warm welcome to the folks who come to purchase the wares they’ve lovingly nurtured for nearly a decade. Most offer a selection of species, loan you the tools you’ll need, and will make your tree as conveniently portable as humanly possible.
In the Rondout Valley, you can visit Bell’s or Marshall’s, both located in Accord, or the Sundown Tree Farm in Kerhonkson. In Eastern Ulster, you’ll find the Hardenburgh Christmas Tree Farm in Ulster Park and Mountain Fresh in Highland. Dutchess County, perhaps due to the lingering influence of FDR, has at over a dozen to choose from.