Christmas trees

It’s that jolly time of a year again when we celebrate new life by murdering 40 million trees. Which, I hasten to add, is simply a dramatic opening and not the beginning of a manifesto for the Evergreen Liberation Front. Fact is, I’m a big fan of the custom of having a Christmas tree. For one thing, it’s provided me with this column.

One of the most interesting things about Christmas trees is their incredible capacity to “drink” water. A tree may slurp up six or seven litres when you first put it up, and as much as a litre or two a day thereafter. This seems like strange behavior for something that’s dead.

But of course, the tree doesn’t realize that it’s dead. As far as it’s concerned, it’s still alive, but increasingly thirsty. The roots that used to bring so much water into the tree (because of their vast surface area) don’t seem to be functioning any more. The tree has to make do with the tubes inside the trunk itself, and they can’t bring in enough water to keep the tree alive, so it does, eventually, dry out and die. In the meantime, however, it does its best to meet the demands of its needles for water.

All of which is shameless anthropomorphizing of what is really a very passive process. Trees draw water up into themselves, whether from their roots or from a little red-and-green metal stand, because of evaporation. The needles constantly lose water to the relatively dry atmosphere. The cells in those needles contain large cavities called vacuoles, designed to hold water. As water evaporates out of the cell, the cell draws more water into the vacuole from other cells deeper inside the tree. Eventually this leads to the tubules, like tiny pipelines, in the trunk, and from there it’s more or less direct to the water supply.

Actually, even a completely dead tree with no needles left would draw some water up into itself by an even more passive process called capillarity, which is the tendency of water to “crawl” into tiny spaces. Water molecules attract each other and are attracted to other substances. If you stick a fine glass tube into a supply of water, the water will crawl up the tube; the leading edge of the water is attracted to the glass and it pulls the rest of the water up along with it. The water will climb to the height at which the molecular attraction exactly balances the force of gravity. The thinner the tube, the higher the water will travel. This property of water is also why paper towels are able to soak up the water you spilled on the floor while trying to fill the Christmas tree stand.

The Christmas tree probably originated in medieval Germany, where religious “mystery plays” featured a “Tree of Paradise” to represent the Garden of Eden. These plays were eventually suppressed, but people started putting up the trees in their home. Because it doesn’t shed its needles, the evergreen has long been seen as a symbol of eternal life, and some scholars think this use of trees was a survivor of pagan tree worship, going all the way back to ancient Rome and Egypt.

By the early 1800s the custom of the Christmas tree had spread all over Northern Europe. Prince Albert of Saxony, Queen Victoria’s husband, brought the custom to England in 1841, and other German immigrants (albeit less distinguished) brought it to North America, where it caught on quickly. In fact, the custom of putting lighted and decorated Christmas trees in public places originated in the U.S.

While it’s true that around 40 million trees are harvested every year in the U.S. and Canada, you needn’t worry about forests being cut down wholesale to feed this holiday habit: most trees today are grown on Christmas tree farms. A small to medium tree farm will harvest 10,000 trees, and some of the multinational giants in the business harvest up to a million trees annually on plantations from North Carolina to Nova Scotia..

Nature rarely produces a perfect Christmas tree without some help. Trees can suddenly develop gaps or unsightly branches, so Christmas tree growers prune their trees every June from the age of three on, and cut off the bottom branches to give the trees “handles” long enough for tree stands. (This is done during the summer so bark will grow over the scars.)

Mature trees are usually cut in mid-November, then shipped, so the earlier you get your Christmas tree and get it into water (even if you just put it in a bucket in your basement until you’re ready to decorate it), the fresher it’s likely to be.

The National Christmas Tree Association suggests three ways to test for freshness. First, bend a few needles and branches; they should both be springy. Then slip a few centimetres of a branch through your fingers. If the tree’s fresh, the needles should stay in place. Finally, lift the tree and bang its trunk on the ground. If it’s fresh, it should only lose some brown inside needles and very few green outside ones.

Store your tree in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to put it up, and immediately cut an inch of trunk off the end to break the seal of congealed sap that plugged up the tubes in the trunk when the tree was originally cut. Then put the trunk in water. Forget pine-scented “tree preservatives” and home-made recipes like sugar water: nothing does the job any better than fresh water.

The height of the tree, of course, is up to you. When I was a kid, I always knew exactly how tall the tree should be: at least a foot taller than I was. My parents didn’t object to this when I was three and a half feet tall, but by the time I got to my present six-foot-two, this was an expensive proposition. I must have traumatized them, because nowadays they only put up a little ceramic tree about a foot tall.

And me? Well, now that I’m paying for my Christmas tree myself, I’ve come around to my parents’ point of view:

Short trees are special, too.

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