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Why do we love Christmas trees? A potted history follows:
There's little time at Christmas to concentrate on the garden, but there is one gorgeous element of the natural world that plays an important part in all the festivities. It's the Christmas tree and this forms a central point around which the celebrations are concentrated.
Fact number 1: the environmental dilemma.
Fake Christmas tree or real? Some people assume that a fake tree is kinder to the environment rather than cutting down a living plant. However, responsible growers plant two trees for every Christmas tree sold. The Christmas tree industry is a healthy, growing business which employs local people working on the land. ALSO, most artificial Christmas trees are made in China and they have a heavy carbon footprint. They use unnatural products which involve manufacture; they consume energy and involve considerable air miles and transport resources. At the end of their useful life they are not generally bio-degradable and they end up in landfill sites.
Fact number 2: Christmas trees are not necessarily a Christian thing.
Christianity is said to be one of the last religions to participate in tree worship of this nature. Most nationalities around the world found winters to be difficult and many of them believed their gods were struggling with the cold, the wet and the snow. Winter was, and still is in some places, associated with death. Any plants that still looked healthy and alive during the darkest months of the year were seen as being holy. Green foliage provided their own sort of light and gave hope that the gods would bring new life and better weather.
Fact number 3: The winter solstice.
It's no coincidence that Christmas happens around the time of the shortest day of the year. The winter solstice was, and still is, lit up as a symbolic gesture to mark the fact that the darkest times have passed. Decorating a home with fresh, green growth adorned with colour is a celebration and a reminder that better things are coming. A bright spot during the darkest days.
Fact number 4: Roman feast.
The Roman feast of Saturnalia worshipped the god of agriculture, Saturn. During the month of December, the Romans looked towards the spring and celebrated the fact that plants would soon start growing and lightness would return. Meanwhile, the Northern European Druids decorated their temples with evergreens to symbolise everlasting life and even the Scandinavian Vikings used evergreens in the same way. They believed this everlasting plant was given to them by their god, Balder. The Egyptians, who believed that their sun god Ra had fallen ill, thereby causing the sun to disappear, decorated their homes to represent their gods triumph over illness.
Fact number 5: The first Christmas tree
16th century Germany was probably responsible for the Christmas trees that we know today. Martin Luther, a German monk who was part of the Protestant reformation, added lights to trees after having been amazed by the sight of twinkling stars through trees in a nearby wood. Then during the mid-1800s the British royal family, led by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, were seen and sketched standing by a community Christmas tree. Understandably, it became a fashionable trend and one that shows no signs of falling out of favour!
Fact number 6: There's plenty of choice but your budget will dictate your preference.
Which tree is best? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's more about what you do with your tree than what the tree itself looks like. But it's true to say that there's nothing quite like a real tree for the ultimate Christmas atmosphere. The sight; the scent; the effect. Real trees seem to cast better shadows; they hold the lights and decorations with rather more individual charm; they fill the house with aroma and they arouse the senses.
The Norway Spruce, Picea abies, is considered to be the traditional tree. It's the cheapest and the most widely available. It does tend to drop its needles, hence it has been somewhat usurped in the popularity stakes by the non-drop varieties.
The non-drop Blue Spruce, Picea pungens, is a popular choice and it has an attractive blue hue. It's a mid-range tree as far as the price is concerned.
Fraser (Abies fraseri) and Noble Firs (Abies procera) have an almost conical shape, tasteful blue or olive green colours and both have dense, highly scented foliage. They are generally some of the most expensive.
The Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) also keeps its needles for a considerable time. What's more, it has an aromatic fragrance and a dark green appearance with a hint of silver. Popular in America, it's one of the more expensive varieties here.
The best-selling non-drop Christmas tree is the Nordmann Fir, Abies nordmanniana. It's probably the cheapest of the non-drop varieties.
Which lasts the longest? In theory, one that has been grown in a container will live forever, provided you water it well.
Thinking of planting out your tree into the garden when the festivities are over? It's a great idea. But if you live in an urban area and you have a small garden don't! Your Christmas tree can grow to a height of more than 25m and you will rue the day!