Break out the eggnog. Bundle up the kids in their winter coats. It's that time of the year again, the most wonderful time of the year, when families arm themselves with Bing Crosby CDs, pile into their SUVs, and hit the road in search of Yuletide spirit and the perfect eight-foot Fraser fir. In many cases, their quest takes them to their nearest superstore, where they wander through forests of merchandise, bask in the crisp pine scent of the candle aisle, and after a solid five minutes or so of quality memory-making, plunk down $79 for the perfect limited-warranty, made-in-China, pre-lit polyvinalchloride Christmas tree.
Efficient, commercialized — it's hard to imagine an outing that better embodies the true spirit of the season. Partisans of pine needles and sap might argue that a trip to a cut-and-choose tree farm more accurately evokes the mood of Christmases past, when our hardier, more autonomous forefathers ventured into the woods, axes in hand, to fell whatever tree struck their fancy. Then, there were no middlemen to pay, no hard sells to distract from the joy, adventure, and togetherness of the occasion. But the truth is that before people started looting Mother Nature in the name of the Christ-child, they paid premium prices for Christmas trees in city lots.
In 1851, Catskills farmer Mark Carr had experienced a poor harvest and was looking for a way to make money for the next season's seeds. In that era, balsam fir grew so abundantly in the state of Maine, and had so little perceived market value, it was generally regarded as a kind of weed. Abandoned farmland in the region, left behind by people drawn to America's rapidly industrializing cities, was quickly covered over by the fast-growing trees. A 1905 issue of Farm Journal reports that these "fir lands were exempt from taxation because they were worthless."
But Carr thought the balsam firs might make good holiday props. While few people displayed Christmas trees at the time, some Dutch and German immigrants in the cities of New York and Philadelphia had brought the tradition with them, and Carr was desperate enough to try anything. Thus he chopped down 36 trees, loaded them up on a wagon, and with the help of his two sons, made the journey to New York. There, for a silver dollar, he rented a stand on the sidewalk near Washington Market, the city's largest fruit and vegetable exchange.
Carr sold all 36 trees and left the locals wanting more. Next year he returned with additional trees and met with similar success. As trees became more convenient to procure, the custom of displaying them went mainstream. By the turn of the century, hundreds of thousands of Christmas trees were being sold in lots all across New England. By 1917, nationwide sales topped four million trees.
In the wake of the tree's growing popularity, sales of ornaments, wreaths, and all the other armaments in Santa's vast arsenal flourished too. As America's most extensively provisioned holiday, Christmas became its most anticipated, celebrated holiday too. Commerce made Christmas, equipping its celebrants with an evergreen trove of symbols and traditions with which to express and dramatize their faith in God, their gratitude toward Jesus, their goodwill toward all.
Last year, America's 15,000 Christmas tree farms produced roughly 27 million trees for market. In addition, consumers purchased approximately 8 million artificial trees as well. Overall, households that display trees made out of plastic now outnumber households that display trees made out of tree.
America's first artificial trees were produced in 1930, by a toilet brush company, out of the same materials it used to manufacture its main product. The trees caught on for the same reason that Mark Carr's balsam firs did: Convenience. They didn't need water, they didn't drop needles, and in a pinch, you could break off a branch and clean your commode.
Today's pre-decorated, pre-lit artificials continue that legacy, offering near-instant merriment to folks whose Christmas spirit exceeds their free time. To counter such functionality, real-tree boosters tout the virtues of the genuine article. Real trees are recyclable, sustainable, made in the U.S.A. They smell like Christmas, not gritty Chinese factories — and if you want a modern, aesthetically pleasing outing, hit your local Christmas tree farm and start chopping. But if you seek old-fashioned tradition, an authentic echo of the ghosts of Christmas Past, go where the trees are easiest to get. Go where the scent of commerce wafts through the air like fresh-baked sugar cookies. Go to Walmart.