O Christmas Tree

By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.

Andrea Cosgrove of Hampden Township grew up with an artificial Christmas tree each season.

Her boyfriend, Travis Haney of Middletown, always had a fresh cut tree each Christmas at home.

The couple recently strolled the grounds of Cassel’s Tree Farm, a family operated, cut-your-own Christmas tree farm located in West Hanover Township. It was Cosgrove’s first jaunt to a Christmas tree farm and she enjoyed it very much. No wonder.  Haney’s idea of choosing a fresh cut tree remains the most popular one in the United States.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group for the farm-grown Christmas tree industry, show that Americans prefer to deck their halls with fresh cut trees.

Real trees outsold artificial ones by a 2-to-1 margin last year — 25 million compared with 12.5 million.

Maybe it’s the sharp pine scent or the tree selection process that sends folks seeking a good old traditional Christmas tree experience. Or maybe it’s the memories of past Christmases when the whole family made the trip together to find the “perfect” tree.

The Tradition

The tradition of bringing evergreen boughs and even whole trees indoors during the winter solstice began in Europe well before there were reliable written records.

These early indoor trees were not adorned with fanciful decorations as Christmas trees are today. Relatively “modern” Christmas tree traditions did not begin until the 16th century — the Protestant reformer Martin Luther is credited with first decorating a small evergreen tree with candles, representing the stars in the sky that twinkled over Bethlehem.

Although the Christmas tree tradition was brought to Pennsylvania by early German colonists, the first documented Christmas tree belonged to Lancaster resident Matthew Zahn. His 1821 diary entry reads, “Sally & our Thos. & Wm. Hensel was out for Christmas trees, on the hill at Kendrick’s saw mill.”

Throughout the 1800s, the Christmas tree grew in popularity. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England were featured in the London News in 1846 with an illustration of the royal family standing around a Christmas tree. This picture caused a sensation, and the Christmas tree became instant fashion for others to imitate.

By the late 1800s, the decorated tree movement had hit the United States, and the Christmas tree became commonplace in many American homes.

The first popular style of American Christmas trees did not look like the typical decorated trees of today. Such trees were 3 to 4 ft. tall and stood on a table in the center of the room for all guests to enjoy. Ladies and children would spend hours crafting home-made decorations and ornaments using natural materials. Often, clusters of berries, nuts, pretzels, fruit, paper, raisins, popcorn, and cookies adorned the evergreen branches of the tree. Small candles were clipped onto the outermost branches to illuminate the tree and show off the decorations. The candles would only be lit for a few minutes at a time because of the danger of fire.

Not much later, manufactured holiday ornaments became part of the tradition. The Easton Express advertised Christmas tree ornaments in 1867, while the Harrisburg Telegraph, in its December 1881 edition, boasted “charming little ornaments can now be bought ready to decorate Christmas trees that it seems almost a waste of time to make them at home.”

Real vs. Artificial

As Christmas trees became more and more popular, a demand for artificial, reusable trees arose. The first artificial trees were created in Germany in the 1880s. Concerned about extensive lumbering and the health of their forests, the German people created feather Christmas trees. Feather trees were made out of goose feathers that were dyed to resemble evergreen needles. The feathers were separated at the spine, and then held secure using wire to form a branch. The branches of feathers were then inserted into a small wooden pole, representing the tree trunk, to make an “evergreen” Christmas tree. Pennsylvania Germans brought this tradition with them to America, and since then, a vast array of artificial trees in different styles, textures, materials, and even colors have come to decorate many Monroe County homes.

The National Christmas Tree Association maintains data on Americans and their Christmas tree spending habits. In 2014, according to the group’s most recent data, the average cost of a real tree was $39.50, and the average cost of an artificial tree was $63.60.

Households in the United States purchased approximately 26.3 million real Christmas trees with a retail value of $1.04 billion. About 13.9 million artificial trees were purchased with a total retail value of $1.19 billion. The Association predicts that 11 percent of U.S. homes will display both artificial and real Christmas trees this holiday season.

Pennsylvania is No. 4

Pennsylvania has bragging rights in the Christmas tree industry, ranking fourth nationwide in trees harvested, with more than one million cut in 2012, the most recent data from the USDA.

If you are among those who prefer the aroma and beauty of natural trees, you will be happy to know that according to 2012 agricultural census reports, Pennsylvania boasts 31,577 acres of land dedicated to Christmas tree farms.

Since 2004, fresh-cut tree sales have decreased however, to 25.9 million sold in 2015 compared with 27.1 million in 2004 — still exceeding total sales of fake trees. Artificial trees sales have increased since 2004, with 12.5 million sold in 2015, an increase of 3.5 million.

A Family Tradition

Paula McDermott’s family is big on tradition.

Each season, they visit Rudy’s Tree Farm in Perry County to select their fresh tree, usually a 5 ft. concolor, commonly known as a white fir.

My Dad was a forester so we have gone to cut a fresh tree every year,” says McDermott. “Rudy’s is a marvelous place. It’s a family experience.”

McDermott says Rudy’s also has a small shop with decorations, craft items, honey, and preserves for sale.

“I always choose an 8 ft. Colorado Blue fir at McCurdy’s in Dillsburg,” says Patti Hill. “I go and cut mine down myself. I jump on the big tractor and off I go.”

“Gruver’s Tree Farm in New Cumberland always has a fresh selection of real tress,” says Drenda Mary. “They have a great selection of 9 ft. trees which is what I get. The folks are always friendly and helpful, too,” she says.

“I do decorate with smaller, alpine type artificial trees in other rooms, but our family room tree is always real,” says Mary.

Ellen Frola of Harrisburg says she loves Wine’s Christmas Trees on Fishing Creek Valley Road. “They have beautiful trees already cut, and if you prefer, you can cut your own tree,” says Frola. “The scenery is beautiful and the owners are super nice.”

While Robert Shoaff’s family favorite to get their tree is at Wyndwood Nursey,  Gary Tennis usually get his tree at Shenck’s in Newberry off of Rt. 83. “Shenck’s is an amazing place to get a real tree,” he says.

Charlie Gerow, president of Quantum Communications, says every year his staff travels to a local cut your own Christmas tree farm like McCurdy’s or Cassel’s to select a large tree for the office. “We cut the tree, take it back to the office, decorate it with a collection of White House ornaments and lights, then we celebrate with our own party,” he says. “My staff prefers a fresh tree.”

In the past, Diane Rothrock and her family used to cut their own at Hub’s Tree Farm, but nowadays she says they usually purchase a fresh tree from a local fire station who sells trees to raise money.

Likewise, Stephanie Godinez of Harrisburg also prefers a live tree to artificial and finds her special tree at Smith’s Farm in Harrisburg near Strite’s Orchard.

Wherever they may find their tree, all agree that a fresh tree has a natural symmetry, color, texture, and a fresh scent that permeates the house for weeks.

The Market

But while the market is big, there are significant risks with evergreen growing.

Christmas trees require year-round maintenance, they take seven to ten years to grow and they have a sales season little more than a month long. If you still have cut trees sitting around on Christmas Day, you could find yourself barely breaking even for the year.

Some farmers like Tom and Audrey Balthaser relied on Christmas tree sales as a sole source of working income. They agree that their business, Perry Valley Tree Farm,  was a lot of hard work since they had to plant the trees, trim and de-cone them before cutting the trees and then selling them. They started their tree farm in 1975 and began selling trees when they reached the desired heights.

All this from an industry that didn’t even exist until 100 years ago. Despite the long history of decorating evergreens near the winter holidays, the first commercial Christmas tree farm wasn’t planted until 1901. Even in the 1940s, 90 percent of Christmas trees were still harvested from the forest. Today, over 95 percent come from commercial tree farms. Christmas tree sales provide an important source of income during the season when many produce farmers have no other items to sell.

Buying from a big box store like Home Depot may be the quickest fix for folks who just want to grab a tree and be done with it. But it’s the people who want a little extra holiday spirit who keep the small Pennsylvania Christmas tree farms in business year-after-year.