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The Christmas Tree

Posted in Christmas, Historical articles, History, Nature, Religion on Friday, 13 May 2011

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This edited article about Christmas Trees originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 935 published on 22 December 1979.

Christmas, picture, image, illustration

Christmas in the 1960s

Although the Norway spruce, with its Latin name of Picea abies, is our Christmas tree in Britain, several other conifers fill the bill equally well. Silver or Douglas firs and Scots and Lodge-pole pines make good substitutes. Lodgepole pines are the usual Christmas tree of North America, and are often favoured because they are less inclined to drop their needles; and, what is perhaps more important, their strong branches are more suitable for hanging presents on.

Every Christmas for many years now it has been traditional for the Norwegian Government to send a magnificent example of one of their spruce trees as a gift to London, where it is erected in Trafalgar Square, and covered with a mass of electric lights.

There are several varieties of spruce, but none of them is native to Britain. They were introduced to this country many years ago because of the usefulness of the wood they produce. The wood is known as “deal” and usually has many knots and streaks of resin, but it is widely used in the building trade because it is cheap, and the trees grow quickly.

How Christmas trees first became associated with the Christian festival marking the birth of Jesus is not very clear. There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the weeks at the end of December and the beginning of January when both Pagan and Christian celebrations used to be held centuries ago.

In the ancient Roman world the Saturnalia festival was held on 17th December, and was a time for merrymaking and the exchange of presents. At the Roman New Year on 1st January the people used to decorate their houses with greenery and lighted candles or oil lamps. Gifts were also distributed to children and poor people.

The Christmas tree with its decorations, lights, and shining star at the top, first appeared as a regular feature of the season in the 16th century in Germany. The custom spread to the rest of Europe and Britain. During this period the people used to visit one another’s houses for food and good fellowship. Yule (the early Saxon name for Christmas) was celebrated by the eating of special cakes, the ceremonial burning of the Yule Log, and greenery and fir trees all figured in different parts of the festivities.

It is thought that this use of evergreens symbolised survival, and they have been associated with Christmas ever since the Middle Ages.

In more modern times, it became the custom in Germany for the family to hold hands round the Christmas tree and sing together.

Christmas trees became very popular in Britain after Prince Albert – Consort of Queen Victoria – provided one for a children’s party at Windsor Castle in 1841. Prince Albert was, of course, German by birth.

Despite the introduction of plastic trees in recent years, the traditional spruce or Scots pine Christmas tree is still a firm favourite with most people. To cater for the demand, the Forestry Commission in Britain have more than 30 forest sales centres around the country.

A Christmas tree fresh from the forest is still reasonably cheap, and the Commission only uproot those suitable. They vary in size from just under one metre to more than two metres. The foresters offer hints on caring for your tree and reducing needle fall.

Trees can be sprayed with an anti-transpirant, which helps to prevent it from losing moisture, or they can be dipped in a solution of sodium alginate.

Always keep your tree in a cool place like a shed or garage until you are ready to start decorating it – preferably until Christmas Eve – and shake off the loose needles before you bring it indoors. Unless the tree is quite fresh, cut a few inches from the stub, and pot it in wet sand, gravel, shingle, or screwed up newspaper.

If it is difficult to keep the stub damp, spray it all over with an anti-transpirant, and, most important of all, try to place it in the coolest part of the room, away from fires or radiators.

Remember, the trees are inflammable – and you do want to have a Happy Christmas.

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