Real Christmas trees were a staple of the holiday season in our house growing up. The ritual of going to the specific tree lot that my dad insisted had the best selection; watching him walk the corridors of trees deciding which one met his standards, no doubt influenced by and inherited from his dad; lashing the tree into the trunk of our car and driving home, more slowly and carefully than how we arrived due to our precious cargo. As kids, our primary job during the process of setting the tree up inside was to stay out of the way and watch, ignoring the grumbling and cursing as my parents attempted to wrangle the tall fuzzy green beast into the living room.
But it was always worth it—the smell alone brought instant holiday vibes into the house. And my dad was always proud of choosing a “good” tree—White Pines for their wondrous scent or Frazier Firs for their shape and talent for displaying ornaments on their shapely branches.
Nowadays, my family has a fake tree. Easier to manage and less expensive over the long run. But I still miss that smell and freshness that a candle can’t quite replicate. It seems everyone I know has gone the fake tree route; even the tree in my living room right now is a fraud. But seeing this tweet from the National Forest Foundation gave me hope that some people are still opting for the real deal.
Back in 1955, my grandpa wrote a piece about living Christmas trees in the Morton Arboretum’s Bulletin of Popular Information, an alternative to both imitation trees and discarding a cut tree after the holiday:
The ever increasing popularity of the living Christmas tree idea to add a festive note to the holiday season as well as to provide permanent greenery for the future, has stimulated the custom of planting an outdoor Christmas tree each year. By so doing, it is possible to literally "have one's cake and eat it," a live tree providing not only a better looking and longer lasting subject for Christmas decorating, but a permanent addition to the landscape as well.
The idea of choosing a vital evergreen to decorate for the holiday and for general landscape embellishment seems a particularly green way to handle the idea of a Christmas Tree. Grandpa Kammerer even mentions the possibility of having a living tree indoors for the season before returning it to its natural habitat. He wrote characteristically sage advice for those wishing to attempt hosting a living tree:
Such procedure calls for special handling and careful attention to the matter of supplying and maintaining necessary moisture and humidity. A washtub or large bucket packed with moist peat moss or sphagnum should provide an adequate receptacle for the balled tree during its stay indoors. Equally important is careful advance preparation of the planting site. This should be done while the ground is still in workable condition, and then mulched to prevent frost penetration. Copious watering at planting time is just as important as at any other season, and protection from winter sun and wind quite as essential…A heavy mulch of leaves, straw, pine needles or some similar material is also beneficial.
He goes on to detail various species that would make good or poor candidates for such a treatment in the Chicagoland climate: generally advising away from Firs (besides the White Fir and Douglas Fir); encouraging several Spruce species like the White Spruce, Black Hills Spruce, and Dwarf Alberta Spruce (although noting that Spruces look their best in a group as opposed to a solitary tree); and wholeheartedly endorsing Pines as a solid option for this area (notably the White Pine, Lace-Bark Pine, and Swiss-Stone Pine, among others).
He also touches on miscellaneous conifers that could fit the Christmas tree bill—enthusiastically encouraging the Eastern Hemlock:
Given growing conditions to its liking and the Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, can be the most satisfying evergreen of them all. The epitome of grace, with slender pendulous branches and small lustrous green needles of fine texture, it is a good looking tree in every stage of its development.
Last year, I wrote about my grandpa’s Christmas decorations for Riverby over the years, including small illustrations he sketched in his journals while developing his plans for holiday decor. It’s nice to know I’m not the first in my family to be captured by Christmas decorating and the magic they bring.
My dad described the Christmas tree as a big deal in their house—always obtained fresh from the Arboretum, he says they had a wide variety of species over the years. He mentioned that some years his dad opted for evergreen branches arranged in a Japanese style instead of a proper tree, which speaks to my grandpa’s fascination with both the arrangement of plant material and Japanese aesthetics (no doubt influenced by his travels to Japan in 1962). My dad remembers going into the city to visit Marshall Fields with his parents, especially after Christmas, to pick over closeout ornaments for the following year’s fabulously decorated tree. And after the tree had lived out the remainder of its life indoors as the centerpiece for the season, my grandpa would place it outside as cover for the birds he loved watching in Riverby’s yard. Although he endorsed the idea of live Christmas trees, he never implemented the idea himself.
Hopefully, this issue has inspired your Christmas decorating, either this year or in preparation for next. If you’ve ever had a live Christmas tree, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
We’ve had a rough couple of years, all of us. Bringing elements of the outdoors inside, enjoying the green of a tree during this bleak winter will hopefully serve to lift our spirits and keep hope in front of mind. Especially for those who might not be able to see family and friends for the holidays, for whatever reason, the ritual of decorating a tree with ornaments that hold dear memories of the people we love will hopefully serve as a comfort—prominently displaying the love we have for those who are far away or whom we’ve lost.
I hope you and yours have a wonderful, cozy holiday season, with plenty of greenery to enjoy outdoors and in!
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