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'A demand for the perfect tree'

There has been a lot of talk recently about America's latest self-division: the split between ''Sunbelt'' and ''frost belt.'' One almost hesitates to mention the words. They are, after all, so new that my dictionary skips blithely from sunbeam to sunberry, and so cliched that they involve astonishing preconceptions about regional wage rates, urban congestion, and social gregariousness. But the real difficulty lies in polarization. The words suggest a nation divided against itself, whose two halves are capable of going their own ways, thank you, and doing very well without each other.

Fortunately, however, the Christmas season is upon us. And along with all its good fellowship and benevolence, it brings a formidable reason for why the warm and happy South simply can't do without its staid and Northern neighbors. Very simply, it needs a crop that still grows best in the frost belt: Christmas trees.

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America without Christmas trees, after all, would be like England without trifles or Germany without wursts. Germany, in fact, supplied the custom of decorating the evergreen, which reportedly made its American debut among Pennsylvania Germans in 1821. It found its way into other European countries in similar ways. The German-born Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, set up a tree at Windsor Castle in 1841, the year their first son was born, and the English tradition was off and running. Princess Helen of Mecklenburg, wife of the French Duke of Orleans, is said to have introduced the idea to Paris in 1837 ; but so sour were relations between the two countries that the custom languished for several decades before catching hold.

In America, however, there were apparently few delays - short of those encountered among Puritan New Englanders, whose forefathers had banned all Christmas observances as works of the devil. The nation's capital had no such reservations: President Franklin Pierce set up a tree in the White House in the 1850s. By the advent of electric tree lights, Boston's puritanism had relented. In 1912 Boston Common shared with New York's Madison Square Park the honor of having the first community tree.

And since then the custom has been thoroughly rubbed into the Yankee grain. Nowadays, most Americans apparently assume that, like foot-tapping to music or sighing after a long cold drink, tree-decorating is an inevitable part of human nature. What, they imagine, could be more normal than dragging an oversize set of spines through doors that are too small, setting its trunk into a wobbly stand that can be capsized by any determined cat, and decorating the boughs with baubles which at any other season would be dismissed as garish in the extreme? It is a custom that pervades the nation, from the coldest Dakotas to the Gulf of Mexico. Never mind that a spruce looks a bit odd among the palms of Key West or the cactuses of Arizona. Christmas is a time of trees; and trees, wherever one lives, must be had.

So by late October this year the trucks were rolling - bearing Douglas firs down the long smooth Interstate highways from Oregon and Washington State into southern California, spreading Scotch pines and white pines from Michigan and Wisconsin across the great Midwest and into Florida, and carrying locally grown balsam firs around New England and elsewhere in the Northeast. And despite the great leveler of nationwide television, there are still regional tastes in trees. Most New Englanders, for example, would wince at the thought of a white pine in the living room; and chances are that an Oregonian would feel slightly disappointed over a mere balsam.

But whatever the region, the custom is popular: Every year there are trees in two-thirds of the nation's 90 million households. In a land where there are 14, 726 national organizations (I counted them, the other day, in the Encyclopedia of Associations), and where there are nearly as many opinions as there are people, that's a remarkable unanimity.

To be fair, 30 million of the trees are plastic, ranging from tiny things looking like juniper bushes to full-blown, lush creations that would go a long way toward fooling a spruce partridge. Artificial trees had a heyday a few years ago, when people worried about cutting too many trees, and before the cost of oil began to force the price of a decent plastic tree into the $80-to-$100 range. Now, however, the nation seems to be on an antiques-and-traditions kick. The idea of celebrating Christmas as it used to be done - with a genuine tree smelling of authentic needles and pitch - has come back into fashion. This year , in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Americans will buy 30 million real trees.

And good-looking ones, too. Buyers these days would be disappointed by what the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) calls a ''wild tree.'' The term sounds positively vicious, as though such a tree would devour your presents and tear off the drapes if left unattended. In fact, the word merely describes a tree grown without benefit of the latest horticultural techniques. For the days of slogging through the forest, ax in mittened hand and breath smoking in the cold as you hunt for just the right tree, are apparently over.

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I remember doing precisely that years ago in New Hampshire. The goal, in those days, was twofold. First, one had to find a tree of the proper height. That, in a wood, is no mean feat: Everything looks smaller outdoors, and I recall more than once having to cut a good six feet off the bottom of trees that , while they were still growing, looked if anything a little small. Second, one wanted to find a tree with full boughs all around and no great gaps. Unfortunately, woods being what they are, nearly every tree had grown close to another, and where they shaded each other the branches didn't grow. Actually, that never bothered us too much. In those days, even the bought trees had bald spots. Like many people, we set ours in a corner, turning it just right to hide the gap.

But all that, says NCTA spokeswoman Jane Svinicki, is now history for most people. Most trees these days are ''plantation grown,'' she says - raised, in other words, under optimum conditions, and harvested like any other crop. All across the nation, in parking lots tended by Boy Scouts, on town commons staffed by local clubs, and in front of landscape nurseries, the typical trees-for-sale operation this year stocks only the cultured product. Twirl one around, examine it on all sides, and you find no gaps. For as Miss Svinicki says, ''The American consumer kind of has a demand for the perfect tree.''

Cynics, of course, will snicker that consumers want even their real trees to look like the plastic ones. But the impetus for perfection appears to have come from the growers: when they began supplying the market with perfectly-shaped trees in increasing numbers, the public went for them in droves. Most are home-grown: Canadian imports cause hardly any problems to the estimated 12,000 growers in the United States. The reason? Canadians, says Miss Svinicki, still harvest a lot of wild trees. The tag on the balsam I bought the other day, however, reads ''Atlantic Canada Grade Fancy.'' Then, incongruously, it announces that the serial number is 31453, as though to persuade me that, should the tree break down before Christmas, I might have recourse to the manufacturer under consumer protection laws. Nothing wild here; it is, in fact, a most pleasantly shaped tree.

How did it get to be that way? By a lot of manual labor, I'm told. Most market trees are grown on small two- or three-acre holdings. The seedlings are planted in a grid pattern with five-foot spacings. Not surprisingly, they need fertilizer and mowing. But the major effort is in the trimming. Every summer for the six to sixteen years it takes to grow a saleable tree, the boughs are shaped by shearing. It is taxing work, and it wants doing at just the right time. A few acres is about all a family can handle.So some 90 percent of the nation's growers are part-time operators, using a field near the house to produce perhaps 300 trees a year and bring in maybe $6,000. Some of them don't even harvest their trees: fastening on the nation's penchant for do-it-yourselfing, they set up ''choose and cut'' farms, turning the public loose with saws among (as the season progresses) an increasing number of stumps.

And to what end? There again, cynics would cavil. Look, they would say, at all that land being used for an essentially frivolous crop in a world which is beset by famine. Now, I haven't taken my calculator to the 30 million trees grown on a five by five grid to find out how many square miles of land it takes to supply one year's Christmas. Nor do I think I should. One reason is that much of the land, at least here in New England, is pretty poor stuff, unsuited to crops and often left uncultivated before the Christmas market grew. Another reason is that the solution to the world's hunger problem apparently does not lie in increasing the cropland of North America, where sizeable amounts of grain already go into storage, but in developing an adequate international economic, political, and transportation structure to move the grain we have to the nations most in need.

But the real reason for leaving the calculator idle is my feeling that a Christmas tree is more than a mere frivolity. Granted, it's not an essential, like potable water or clean air. Nor is even an officially sanctioned and tax-deductible public good, like charitable contributions or home-mortgage interest. It is, instead, an entirely individual symbol of domestic cohesiveness. It is decorated according to no plan other than each family's sense of design: there are not, as far as I know, any widely-consulted books on how to do your tree. In an age of polarizations, it provides a center for a season of togetherness. In a period of complexity, it seems a simple thing. In an age of artificiality, it is pleasantly natural. And when the snow and cold keep many indoors, it is a quiet reminder of the grandeur of the outdoors.

So far, the nation does not export many trees: the international agricultural regulations are too complex. Yet if the plantations keep producing, it may be that the country can export something even more valuable: a sense of family togetherness, of Christmas sharing, that breaks down the mental barriers between nations as easily and gracefully as it breaks down those between the frost belt and the Sunbelt.

If, to that end, Americans grow trees to share with one another - tending them carefully, in small lots, with whole families nurturing them toward maturity - then let the cynics rage. The peace of the season and the smell of the boughs will calm them.

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