Christmas tree

The use of evergreen trees as part of a seasonal celebration has been popular in and around Europe for centuries, if not millennia. In fact as far back as Roman times, evergreens trees were used in the ancient Saturnalia festival – the Roman equivalent to our modern New Year’s celebrations. It was also their custom to exchange the branches and twigs of evergreen trees as a good-luck blessing.

Although many historians agree that it was Scandinavian pagans during the eighth century who first brought trees into their homes for ceremonial practices, it was the German Saxons who took the idea further by illuminated their trees with candles, and adorning them with decorations for good fortune. This tradition became so ingrained in German culture it was no wonder it made the jump to the Christmas celebration via early German Christians.

The best and earliest example of a fir tree being used as part of the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth was by Martin Luther - leader of the protestant reformation during the sixteenth century. Legend has it that on one crisp Christmas Eve, Martin Luther was taking a walk through some snow covered woods when he became struck by the beauty of some small frosted evergreens which appeared to shimmer in the moonlight as he approached them. When he returned home, he brought with him one of the smaller tree which he set up inside so he could share this story with his children. He then decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honour of Christ's birth.

Christmas tree
During the 19th century the popularity of the Christmas tree tradition took off, and spread throughout the Royal Courts of Europe and Russia. As a child of 13, the future Queen of England – Princess Victoria - was already well traveled and familiar with the custom. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, she wrote,

'...after dinner...we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room...There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees…'

The Victorian and Albert Tree The Christmas tree ‘officially’ arrived in England in 1841, when Queen Victoria's husband - the German-born Prince Albert - set up a tree in Windsor Castle. Introduced first to this country by German Merchants, it was the influence of the Georgian Royal family that really brought the Xmas tree to our attention. However, the British public were not particularly fond of the German Monarchy during this period and so the fashion for displaying a Christmas tree – for the time being - stayed at Court.

Although the traditional Christmas tree was still unpopular during the first half of the 19th Century, things were set for a change in 1846, when a woodcut of the Royal couple was published in the Illustrated London News. They were pictured standing with their children around a decorated Fir tree, but unlike the previous Royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at Court this time immediately became fashionable – but not just in Britain.

Christmas tree
In America, German immigrants had been using Christmas trees as far back as the 1830's, but this custom took several decades to properly catch on because its pagan origins. However in 1850, the Victoria and Albert woodcut illustration was re-published in Godey's’ Lady's Book’. Godey's had copied it ‘almost’ exactly as it had been seen in England, but the decision was made to remove the Queens crown and Prince Albert’s mustache in an effort to remake the engraving into more of an American style scene. This was the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America, and after subsequent reprints during the 1860’s and 1870s, the putting up of a decorated Christmas tree had become truly ingrained in popular American culture and remains so to this day.

Christmas tree varieties

Although there are many types of Xmas tree that you could choose from there are generally only two varieties that you will come across in the UK market. The first is the traditional tree - the Norway spruce, and the second is today's best seller the Nordmann fir. However, nowadays we are seeing more and more unusual varieties coming onto the shop floors, unfortunately while some of them have excellent qualities they are often not grown in enough numbers or to a high enough standard to take the crown from our other two best sellers. Below is our breakdown of the most likely Xmas tree varieties you will be able to buy in the UK this Christmas..

NORWAY SPRUCE - Picea abies

This beautiful, dark-green spruce is the variety of Christmas tree that brings back all of those childhood memories of Christmas, and it’s also the tree that was introduced to England in the early nineteenth century by the then Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. Its charm is down to its gorgeous piney scent which can fill a room within minutes, but it is at a cost. The essential oils that carry the scent are released from the trees needles as they dry out and of all the trees available at Christmas; this is the variety that will lose its needles the fastest quickest. The main advantage that it has over the other trees other than its wonderful fragrance is that are that they are relatively inexpensive to buy, and if you can find a supplier who keeps them trimmed up on a yearly basis, their trees will have best conical shape of any variety that you will see.

NORDMANN FIR – Abies nordmanniana

Perhaps the most popular tree in the UK today is the Nordmann fir, otherwise known as the needle-fast or low needle drop tree. Living up to its common name it has an uncanny way of holding onto its needles far longer than it has any right to, and this is partially down to its thick sugary sap locking up its precious water.

Along with large, thick leathery needles which are firmly secured to pliable stems, the Nordmann fir easily prevents the server water loss suffered by the Norway spruce. Even when subjected to the harsh, environmental conditions of a domestic radiator their tenacious needles are still reluctant to fall even when they have turned a rather obvious desiccated brown. This leads some owners to spray tired specimens with green paint to maintain the charade of lush greenery health to friends and family. Unfortunately it’s because of their incredible ability to remain hydrated that they have little or no pine scent, and this is really their only downfall. As a specimen, it consists of rich green leaves similar to that of a yew tree, while the branches tend to grow in tiers making the tree ideal for hanging large ornaments from. It is this kind of ability that makes the Nordmann fir Britain’s best selling Christmas tree.

SCOTS PINE – Pinus sylvestris

If you are after something different then there are normally a few unusual specimens to be found if you look hard enough. Popular in the USA is the Scots pine - Pinus sylvestris, however it has yet to take on in a big way in Britain.

Pinus sylvestris is a native to the wilds of Scotland, hence the common name, although is range stretches as far Portugal in the west, east to eastern Siberia, and south to the Caucasus Mountains. Interestingly, the Scots pine is the only pine native to northern Europe!

As a Christmas tree it is known for its dark green foliage and stiff branches which are well suited for decorating with both light and heavy ornaments. Like the Nordmann Fir it has excellent needle retention characteristics and holds up well throughout the Christmas period.

A great alternative to the traditional species, especially if you are considering a larger tree.

NOBLE FIR – Abies procera

The Noble fir is a large evergreen tree native to the Cascade Range and Coast Range mountains of extreme northwest California and western Oregon and Washington in the United States.

Its fast growth and luscious foliage make it an ideal contender for Christmas tree production. It is similar in shape, if not a little more compact, to the Nordmann fir, but it has soft blue-green needles on evenly spaced strong branches perfect for heavy ornaments.

If trimmed during production it will produce a very compact and pleasing shape.

It is arguably more ornamental with exceptional needle retention and a pleasant mild fir scent. If grown in sufficient quantities, it the Noble fir that is most likely to take the crown away from the Nordmann.

FRASER FIR – Abies fraseri

Named after the Scottish botanist John Fraser (1750–1811), Abies fraseri is a species of fir native to the mountains of the eastern United States. It has a great combination of form, needle retention, dark blue-green colour, and pleasant scent and this has led to the Fraser fir being one of the most popular Christmas tree species in North America.

The Fraser fir also has excellent needle retaining properties as well as tightly packed branches which can provide a well shaped and narrow tree. this is particularly useful if space is tight.

Unfortunately the commercial production of Fraser firs for the Christmas tree market is still in its infancy in the UK and so far the quality of Fraser firs grown in this country is usually poor. However, if you can find a good one then you are on to a winner.

DOUGLAS FIR – Pseudotsuga menziesii

Unlike some of the others the Douglas fir is not a true fir , but it can still make for an excellent Christmas tree. It has very dense foliage with an upright branch structure. Color ranges from a medium green to dark green with soft needles that spring back quickly when squeezed in the hand. It has a pleasant evergreen aroma, and while not overpowering, will fill a room with a fresh scent. This tree will hold medium and light weight ornaments nicely.

Driving off to your preferred Xmas tree retailer and choosing the family Christmas tree is right up there as one of the year's great family events. However, try not to look at this pseudo 'Right of Passage' event through rose tinted glasses as - in my experience of selling these horrid creatures - every other sale will involve some kind of a dispute within the family. The truth is that most people have no idea as to what they are buying, yet the dominant male in the family group will always try and take on the role of 'Xmas tree expert'. Sometimes it appears as though God himself has anointed the man with an 'all knowing power' enabling him to choose the very best out of the thousands of tree in stock. Occasionally you will come across a dominant male who will actively insist in seeing every single tree in his price range before a decision is made. Be aware that this scene can  ONLY be prevented from playing out to the very end if he is accompanied by a woman!

So, how do you choose the very best Christmas tree?

Christmas tree
Well, your two biggest concerns should be damage and freshness. If the Xmas trees are still wrapped up in their protective netting then make sure that you ask an assistant to remove the netting so that you can see the tree in its entirety. That way you haven't just driven all the way home with a tree that has a broken or damaged leader. Secondly, ask the assistant to lift the tree and bang the bottom of the trunk on the ground. This will help the branches to open up allowing the tree to reveal its shape. Also, if you see a torrent of needles fall to the ground, you will have a good indication that the tree is not as fresh as perhaps it ought to be. Don't forget to ask the assistant to fit a new net over your chosen Christmas tree otherwise you can almost guarantee damaging it when you try to get it home.

Tree freshness

If you are buying your Xmas tree through a retailer rather than direct from a Xmas tree farm then freshness will be more of an issue. This is because as soon as a Xmas tree has been cut (presuming that you are buying a cut Xmas tree) it will only be able to hold on to its needles as long as it has sufficient moisture inside it. Unfortunately, as trees are living breathing things they are going to be continuously losing water through their needles as part of their normal metabolism.In order to reduce needle loss once you have your tree back at home, ask the assistant to make a fresh cut at the base of the trunk before you leave the store and then - once home - provide a Xmas tree stand that is able to hold a reservoir of water. Don't forget to refill the reservoir with water when it runs out!

This bit is important. If you want a tree that has that lovely Christmas pine smell the you will only get this from a tree that is releasing the smell as it dries out. In that case choose the traditional Xmas tree known as the Norway spruce or Picea abies. If you are not worried about the smell and want the tree to hold on to its needles for as long as possible then choose a 'needle fast or non-drop' variety of Christmas tree such as the Scots pine, Fraser fir, Abies nordmanniana etc

Please be aware that in order for the Xmas tree suppliers to successfully fulfill the orders placed by the retailers, they begin cutting at the end of November and tend to finish by the first week of December. So your tree chosen tree could have been drying out for up to 4 weeks before you buy it. Therefore, if you have bought a tree that has been bound up and sitting around for a couple of weeks, by the time Christmas day has arrived it could be a bare as Mother Hubbard's cupboard! This problem of drying out can be made worse if the weather is unseasonably warm, and if you are displaying your tree next to a working radiator!

Christmas tree
FACT. Don't forget that once your tree is at home and it is stood there all by itself without any others to compare with - they all end up looking pretty much the same.

More so, it it is hidden by decorations and after the second day no-one will bother looking at it much anyway.

So my top tips for buying a Christmas tree is this:

1. Choose a fresh one.
2. Choose an even one
3. Check the height of your ceiling so that you know for sure that the height of the tree + height of your Christmas tree stand + your fairy on the top of it will comfortably fit in your proposed room.
4. Same goes for the width. Check the size of the area that you are going to be positioning your tree so that it will fit.
5. Don't be afraid to cut bits of your tree to make it fit or look more appealing.
6. If your tree is going into the corner of the room you can remove as much of the back of the tree as you like as you won't see it

If I have missed out anything then leave a note in the comments. Merry Xmas and good hunting.

For related articles click onto the following links:
THE CHRISTMAS ROSE - Helleborus niger
THE SILVER BIRCH - Betula pendula

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