FARGO — Remember the Christmas trees of your childhood? The holidays bring back memories, and it’s fun to reminisce about our past trees.
Nostalgia paints a picture of the perfect Christmas tree like a Currier and Ives print of a horse-drawn sleigh hauling home a perfectly shaped fir.
As a tot, I thought our Christmas tree was the most beautiful, well branched, dense and practically perfect tree that nature could possibly produce. Now, looking back at a photo taken almost 60 years ago, I smile at a Christmas tree that looks sparse and spindly, with widely spaced branches, meager by today’s standards.
And we loved it. Dad bought our Christmas trees at the Texaco gas station a block from our home on the corner of Main Street in Lisbon, N.D. The choice was limited to short-needled spruce that lasted only about two weeks indoors before the needles rained down, which was OK because most homes didn’t put up their tree until a week before Christmas, keeping them the 14 days until New Year’s.
Just as we were instructed to unwrap Christmas presents very carefully so the paper could be neatly folded away in a box and saved for wrapping next year’s gifts, silver strands of tinsel were gently removed from each tree branch at takedown and stored for next year’s Christmas tree. Parents who grew up during the Great Depression taught us to save and use again, long before the term "recycling" was widely used.
Dad was afraid to allow electric lights on the tree because there had been an apartment fire above the Anthony’s Clothing Store caused by lights that ignited a Christmas tree. That was partly the reason Dad bought an artificial tree from the Coast-to-Coast store when I was 10, as they were becoming popular in the late ‘60s. Later I learned that a toilet bowl brush manufacturer was the designer of the first manufactured artificial Christmas tree, and the stiff-bristled branches on our early tree did indeed look like toilet bowl brushes, only dyed green. But at least we could now have electric Christmas lights on the nonflammable product.
Fast forward to the mid-1980s when my wife, Mary, and I sold fresh Christmas trees at our garden center. The fragrance of Fraser fir, balsam fir and Scotch pine made selling enjoyable as we learned diplomacy while navigating between spouses disagreeing about what makes the perfect tree. Luckily all left still on speaking terms; Christmas does that.
What’s the current status of Christmas trees in the United States? A recent Washington Post article says 74% of U.S. households put up Christmas trees last year. Of those, 82% were artificial.
Although the nationwide preference is clear, the real tree market is enjoying a slight upswing as young adults look to experience what might be their first fresh tree. Sales of fresh Christmas trees fluctuate annually around 30 million.
Nearly all real Christmas trees are grown on farms, planted as a crop like corn or cotton, and harvested after seven to 10 years. During their crop time, evergreen trees contribute to air purification, erosion control and wildlife habitat. The average price paid for a fresh Christmas tree last year was $78 nationwide.
Does our family have a real or artificial tree in our own home? We have one of each. After selling and enjoying real trees for years, we’d miss the fragrance and the process of selecting and setting up a fresh tree.
But when we were displaced from our home to an apartment while recovering from a house fire six years ago, we bought an artificial, the type required by the apartment’s policy. We kept the artificial, and put it up as a secondary tree ever since.
Although real trees will always be our preference, others have good reason for choosing differently.
One thing is certain: today’s real and artificial trees have both improved greatly since I was a boy, which shows even the good old days can be improved upon.
Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at email@example.com or call 701-241-5707.