Christmas. What does it mean to you? Perhaps it is a smell. A memory. Faith. Tradition. The kitsch. A collectivization of many little things coming together to form that golden interlace threading the holiday season in shimmering splendour. Born out of a cosmic nursery of love and goodwill, Christmas is contextualized by the rich history, custom, and philosophies it imbibes, ordained by the baroque of religious pageantry. Inasmuch as it is an action, Christmas is a feeling; manifesting the greatest aspects of humanity’s nature. It’s regalia plays just as important a role as the idea of Christmas itself, giving form to its nebulous nature in droves of colour to contrast the opaque underbelly of nature’s seasonal landscape. It takes shape in our homes and hearts by the garland along our railings and mantles, the lights that adorn our houses, the decorations and the music, the food, drink and narratives. But one of the more important and iconic symbols of Christmas, besides of course the Nativity and Saint Nick himself, is that of theChristmas tree. As the calendar rolls through November to December, we can’t help but get excited about its process and unveiling.
Traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts, and other foods, the custom of the yule tree, or as it was later known as, the Christmas tree, originated in early, modern Renaissance Germany, with predecessors traced as far back at the 16th and possibly 15th centuries. Diverging speculative theories about its ultimate origin however, maintain the abstruseness and allure of the Christmas tree. Often times traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in the popularized story of Saint Boniface and pre-Christian winter rites, clearly the Christmas tree lends part of its custom to pagan ancestry. Tree worship was common among pagan Europeans for example, some of which survived the conversion to Christianity. Contemporaries also concede the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands in ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Hebrew cultures, as symbols of eternal life. Today, Christmas trees are available in many different types and forms, be it artificial plastic, or shades of coniferous – spruce, pine or fir. They are offered in many contrasting colors, shapes, sizes and designs to suit every manner of personal taste, preference or specialized theme and event. Indeed the Christmas tree is as representative of the culture of the individual as it is society itself, and can reflect a particular time, place or circumstance in someone’s life. Coinciding with an acute growing awareness of our carbon footprint and a temperamental global economy, the debate on artificial or realChristmas trees, has become somewhat of a hot holiday topic.
Studies conducted on both sides of the argument have paradoxically proven each school of thought correct. However, taking into account the interests of the commissioners of such studies, the interpretation and the end goal, this seems a likely outcome. For avid artificial tree supporters, or those predisposed to allergies, a study conducted by a researcher in Connecticut for example, demonstrating the potential harmful effects of spores released by real trees in the home may prove favourable. Spores aside, while the lack of fresh pine scent may be amiss, perhaps the guilt of cutting down a new tree each year is simply enough to put you off the whole Christmas tree custom altogether. Moreover, cost and convenience favours the artificial tree. In lieu of a current, strong market economy, artificial trees may be especially appealing for their investment value when compared with the recurrent, annual expense of a real Christmas tree, and their relatively low maintenance is another reason not to sweep the floor of pine needles or constantly worry about watering. On the contrary, many older artificial tree varieties may contain lead, (which was once used as a stabilizer in the manufacturing process and can easily disperse into the home), whereas most present day artificial trees, are typically manufactured with metal and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a non-biodegradable, petroleum-derived plastic. PVC releases harmful dioxins overtime, which are not only extremely toxic to both humans and animals, but will also end up in landfills at the end of the tree’s life cycle, contributing to the growing global pollution and refuse crisis. The majority of artificial trees bought and sold in the U.S. and Canada are mass-produced in China, which means not only are we not spending money on our local economies in support of its workers and tree farmers, but we are also adding to our carbon footprint. Despite the aforementioned pro et contra, artificial trees have nonetheless become increasingly popular, with sales jumping to a staggering 17.4 million in the U.S. alone in 2007.
The argument for real Christmas trees teeters on the love of tradition, and a green thumb commitment to sustainability. According to the U.S. EPA, roughly 33 million realChristmas trees are sold in North America each year, 93 percent of which are recycled through more than 4,000 available recycling programs. “Tree-cycling,” an easy way to return a renewable and natural source back to the environment, supports the recycling ofChristmas trees into mulch, which is thus used in gardening, landscaping, or chipped for playground material, hiking trails, paths and walkways. Recycled trees can also be used for lake and river shoreline stabilization, fish and wildlife habitat and beachfront erosion. Moreover, an acre of farmed Christmas trees produce enough oxygen for the daily needs of 18 people. Likewise, a single farmed tree absorbs more than one ton of CO2 throughout its lifetime. With more than 350 million real Christmas tress growing in U.S. tree farms alone, one can only surmise as to the annual amount of carbon retention associated with such groves. Sustainable farming techniques are essential in safeguarding a healthy supply of Christmas trees each year, whereby for each tree harvested, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring. Lastly, the Christmas tree farming industry employs over a hundred thousand workers each holiday season across North America, which is no small economic feat. However, while Christmas trees are farmed as agricultural products, the repeated applications of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers may be used throughout their lifetime. Ideally, farmed Christmas trees, like most other agricultural products, would be grown organically using integrated pest management techniques, and some tree farmers are in fact, offering this alternative. It is also important to take into consideration the offshoot carbon effects of long-distance travel. Depending on where you live, (especially for those climates where coniferous trees don’t grow), yourChristmas tree may have travelled hundred of miles to get from its home to your home. An ideal substitute for both the real and artificial tree this Christmas, may very well be a living potted tree, which can be brought into the home temporarily over the holidays and then replanted after Christmas in your yard, or donated to local parks.
Despite the Christmas tree debate, it’s important to note the significance of the tree itself, and why we have it in the first place. The Christmas tree may very well be emblematic of the Christmas spirit, retaining within its process and decorative splendor, a concentrated sentiment of the holidays. The trinkets it carries, exemplary of good cheer and endearing memories. The bedeck of lights, waves of warmth and security, shining by the glow of blazing hearths, or simply warming a reflection of winter’s scene yonder. A shimmering mimic of snow and frost in its flocked tips and tinsel, an angel or star to light its crown in devout majesty, and the symbol of nature itself – the tree that gives life to our planet and species. And so the feeling of Christmas resides just as much in the reality of faith and the abstract, as it does in the concrete, while the Christmas tree remains our beacon of holiday culture. What it really comes down to, is what that culture means to you, and what it needs to looks like in order to suit your circumstance, beliefs, values and lifestyle. Clearly, in order to preserve what Carl Sagan once so brilliantly coined, “the pale blue dot,” – the only home we know and may ever know – we must always be aware of the cause and effect of our actions, especially in today’s tumultuous geopolitical climate and amidst the global environmental impasse we face today. However Christmas nevertheless continues as a season of celebration and togetherness, despite the harsh realities that abound. Perhaps it is reminder of what prevails – the better aspects of our nature – and the Christmas tree, a symbol of light, prosperity and intimacy, which helps bind its culture. So let us embrace a solution that suits us all, albeit artificial or real, while insight breeds wisdom and a newfound hope for a better tomorrow, we do the best we can with what we have in the spirit of giving.