There is something undeniably magical about coming downstairs during the festive season to the warm pine scent and twinkling lights on a real Christmas tree. Although we associate the Christmas tree tradition with the Victorian era, the custom of bringing evergreen foliage indoors during the winter is much older, a symbol of nature enduring through the dormancy of the colder months.
With many people trying to reduce their carbon footprint and be more conscious of sustainability, It may seem wasteful to cut down a tree just to decorate our homes. Christmas trees are grown sustainably and have a relatively low carbon footprint, but are they more sustainable than plastic trees that can be used year after year? We take a look at the history and sustainability of these beautiful trees that bring a little of the outdoors into our homes and investigate whether we can enjoy a real tree without compromising the planet.
The tradition of bringing evergreen boughs into houses during the winter dates back to ancient Egyptian and Roman times. The return of longer days and the triumph of life over death at the darkest point of the year was celebrated in feasts such as the Roman Saturnalia. During this exuberant carnival, evergreen boughs were used in houses and trees were brought into the temples. The Romans indulged in gift giving and many days of partying, enjoying a relaxation of social norms for slaves and their masters.
The winter solstice has been celebrated historically in many cultures as the turning point in the year when the days start getting longer, and the renewal of nature brings hope of warmer days and future harvests. Evergreens were often used to symbolise the continuity of life during the winter months and boughs were hung above doors and windows in many countries to keep away illness and evil spirits. Today Christian churches are decorated with evergreen branches and wreaths to represent eternal life as part of their advent celebrations in a festival known as the hanging of the greens.
The modern Christmas tree tradition started in 16th century Renaissance Germany, when wooden pyramids would be constructed and decorated with evergreen branches then hung from the ceiling of homes. Christmas pyramids are still popular today and consist of a decorated wooden carousel with a rotor that spins powered by warm air from candles.
It is widely believed that the custom of adding candles to light the tree was started by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther who wanted to replicate the effect of seeing stars through evergreen branches on a snowy winter walk. Candles were traditionally used to light up trees, guarded by a household servant to limit fires, until the 1ntury when electric lights became available.
Christmas trees became popular in the UK in the 1 century, inspired by the publicity surrounding the royal Christmas trees in Windsor Castle. They were first introduced by Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of George III, who had one at a party for children in 1800 and then became a regular annual feature in the royal palaces. The custom became more widespread after Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert and the subsequent publication of an engraving of the royal family enjoying their tree in the Illustrated London News in 1848.
The tradition became fashionable with the nobility but did not become common in all households until the mid 20th century. The magical effect of Christmas trees was considered so important that in 1906 a charity was set up to ensure that children in the slums who had never seen a Christmas tree would be able to enjoy seeing one.
The popularity of Christmas trees waned a little after Queen Victoria’s death and then during the Second World War it was forbidden to cut down trees for use as ornamentation. They regained popularity after the war, however, and artificial trees became more widespread at that point. The first artificial trees were actually made from painted feathers in Germany in the 19century and then were replaced by brush trees (made by a toilet brush company), aluminium trees, and finally by the plastic trees that are widely used now.
Christmas trees are a symbol of peace and public trees are often gifted from other nations to commemorate an end to hostilities or as thanks for international aid. Famous British trees include the Trafalgar Square tree in London, which is gifted by Norway as a token of thanks for British support of the Norwegian resistance during the Second World War. In Newcastle the civic tree is given by the city of Bergen in recognition of the aid by soldiers from Newcastle in liberating the city from Nazi occupation.
Early decorations were mostly made from paper or food and the earliest records of decorated Christmas trees date to 1605, when they were adorned with paper roses, apples, and candles. In the 17and 1century households in Germany and Austria would bring in evergreens and hang them upside down, decorated with apples, nuts, and strips of red paper. Christmas decorations during the Victorian era became more elaborate but were mostly homemade and included fabric pouches with sugared almonds, paper snowflakes, stars, and beaded decorations.
Glass ornaments were first produced in Lauscha in Germany and imported into the UK in the 19century, where they rapidly became a status symbol. At the time such was the pride in the Empire that the most popular topper for a Christmas tree was the Union Jack flag rather than a star or angel. Tinsel was invented around 1610 and initially consisted of strands of silver until the mid 20century, when it was replaced by plastic.
Decorations vary around the world, with brightly coloured wooden animal ornaments and straw stars popular in Sweden, marzipan decorations in Germany, origami swans in Japan, lucky spiders in Ukraine, popcorn in the US and glass apples in France.
In the UK we buy 10 million real Christmas trees every year, with around 3 million of these being imported. Christmas tree farming in the UK is done sustainably, with up to ten seedlings replacing every tree cut, creating mini forests that absorb carbon to help fight climate change and provide habitat for wildlife. Although monoculture plantations are associated with reduced biodiversity, it is possible to create a mixed species forest including plots of Christmas tree species, which increases biodiversity, protects the young trees, and reduces the need for pesticides. European Christmas tree plantations have been found to be an important breeding area for some threatened species of birds including the woodlark (Lullula arborea) and linnet (Carduelis cannabina), with plantations having higher breeding densities than surrounding forest.
Most of the growing and cutting process can be mechanised but trees are individually pruned by hand to shape them into a pyramid and keep the branches bushy. The most popular tree in the UK is the Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), a European species that originates in the Causcaus, accounting for an impressive 85% of the trees sold. It replaced the Norway spruce (Picea abies) as the most popular Christmas tree type, as the latter tends to drop a lot of needles. The sound of needles cascading from a tree post-Christmas when you brush past it is a familiar childhood memory for many of us. Other trees such as the Fraser fir (Abies Fraseri), noble fir (Abies procera) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are becoming more widely grown as they have a stronger scent and different colouration.
With the need to live more sustainably becoming a higher priority, it might seem as if an artificial tree might be more environmentally friendly as it can be reused. Surprisingly the Carbon Trust has concluded that real Christmas trees have a much lower carbon footprint than artificial trees, especially if they are carefully sourced and disposed of. If a real Christmas tree is disposed of in landfill, it has a carbon footprint of 16kg CO, whereas if it is recycled and turned into woodchip for gardening or burned, it has a carbon footprint of 3.5kg CO. An artificial Christmas tree has a carbon footprint of 40kg, which means it would need to be used for 10 years to have a lower carbon footprint than a real tree. If you can find a local Christmas tree grower to source your tree from, it reduces the carbon footprint even more.
Buying a potted tree can reduce the carbon footprint even further if it is reused, just make sure that it is labelled ‘pot grown’ to indicate that it is used to being in a pot and has not been dug up from the ground. It is also now possible to rent a Christmas tree just for the festive period and return it back to the expert care of the grower at the end of the season, an impressive circular economy solution to having a real tree.
Whichever real tree option you choose, you can be assured that it’s an environmentally beneficial way of bringing some of the winter outdoors indoors, a reassuring reminder of the continuity of life and warmer days to come right in your front room.