There's nothing quite like the fresh scent of a Christmas Tree in the cold of winter.

Regardless of religion, I think having a Christmas Tree is somewhat soothing in the winter. Cold and snowy outside, but bit of life and celebration inside. Decorations collected over the years from friends and family lead the Christmas Tree to also be a sense of history and nostalgia. The scent triggers memories of winters gone by. It's not necessarily a religion, it's a feeling.

Underlying all those decoration is the tree itself. Personally, I can't stand artificial trees. Give me a real cut tree any day. "But wait", you say, "isn't that killing a tree?" In a way yes, but also no. The Christmas Tree industry truly is great for the environment. Tree farms plant thousands of baby trees every year just because we want Christmas Trees and those would not be planted if we didn't. So right off the bat, we're adding a staggering number of trees to our environment. Also, young trees tend to have a much higher Oxygen transfer rate than older trees since they have a higher density of leaves (needles) than large mature trees. That means a lot more CO2 is being absorbed in a smaller area. Win number two. And of course, it employs a lot more local people since trees aren't shipped overseas like artificial ones, and all that extra petroleum isn't consumed in the manufacture and transportation of artificial ones. When your tree is finished for the year, it just gets composted rather than land-filled like an artificial one. I think that puts real trees in a stellar light and you can feel good about having one in your home.

Not all trees are created equal and each one is unique. Here's a run-down of the most common trees in our area that are used for Christmas Trees.

  • White Spruce - The old standard in days of old. It was easy to come by and was pretty bushy. But it dried out almost overnight and shed needles quickly. If you put it up early, your vacuum had more needles than the tree. These trees are best reserved for outdoor use where the cold holds on to the needles.
  • Scott's Pine - A super-bushy tree with really long needles. Another very common tree in the past, but not so much now. They tend to be really wide and fat making it hard to move and position in a modern home. The needles didn't drop readily like spruce. In fact, they hung on, but dried right out to the point of being a major fire hazard. The earlier people started putting up their trees, the more dangerous they got. It's rather rare to find these available any more because of that.
  • Balsam Fir - My personal favourite. A nice fragrant tree with medium needles growing somewhat "flat" along the branches. They have a nice longevity and aren't quite as dense as some other firs.
  • Fraser Fir - Probably the premium tree for this area. Fragrant and the longest needle holding ability so it lasts. Good and bushy, and typically more needles per branch than a balsam and a tad darker in colour.

Trees are graded by the growers but sometimes those grades can be misleading. Premium is the "perfect" tree - super-bushy, dense, straight, no imperfections. They can be so dense you can't even see lights through the tree. Then come the #1 and #2. Each one is successively pruned a little less or has the occasional "best side" and "average side" or a little crook at the top. I've always had a preference for the #2 because the lower amount of pruning makes it look like a real tree with imperfections and all. It also lets lights and decorations shine through the tree better. It's almost more comforting and real in my eyes. Un-pruned trees are very rare since they're so unpredictable. Depending on the growing years, there can be a lot of big gaps.

To keep your tree as long as possible, always do a fresh cut as close to when you put it up as you can. When a plant gets a cut, it creates a callus over the cut area to protect itself. That callus can stop it from absorbing water so you want it in water right away before that has time to happen. And make sure to keep your tree topped up with water since, if it dries out, that callus will form and it will stop taking up water. Some trees can need water 2-3 times a day to stay hydrated so make sure you keep that water topped up. A stand with a good sized reservoir is a good thing. My wife tried a trick to pour boiling water into the stand to soften the sap and help it absorb better. I'm not sure if it works or not, but the boiling water softened the plastic in my stand enough to make the tree fall over. Just be careful if you try this method since we ended up needing a new stand. It's also a good idea to leave it upright in the stand overnight before decorating. That gives the tree time to "relax". It can be rather amazing how different a tree can look when it does relax.

So what about living trees in a pot that you bring into your home? Well, the reality is, most of them die because they get brought indoors in this climate. Evergreens need their cycle. They grow during the warm months and sleep in the winter. Take a tree in a pot and bring it inside and it believes it's spring. If it starts growing and then goes outside, it usually dies. Also, the ground has a tremendous moderation effect on plant roots. So having a tree above ground in a pot all winter is really hard on it which also reduces it's survival rate. On average, around 10% of living Christmas Trees actually live long-term.

If you want a living Christmas Tree, here are a few pointers:

  1. Don't have your tree indoors more than 10 days. That will keep it sleeping and not disturb it's cycle. One week or less is preferable.
  2. Keep it moist. The saying goes, wet roots don't freeze so that moisture stabilizes the root temperature.
  3. When not in your home, keep it in an unheated garage. That way the temperature won't go up and down too much increasing it's chance of survival.
  4. If you don't have that garage, pre-dig a hole outside where you plan to keep it until spring and get a bale of straw. Once you take it out of your home, sink it in the hold and cover the pot with straw. Shovel fluffy snow on it all winter. That's the best chance of survival your tree will have.

 So there's the long and short of live Christmas Trees. Part of my Christmas tradition is actually grabbing a tree fully wrapped without looking at it open, bringing it home, dropping it in the stand, and letting it relax and I see my surprise the next morning. Whatever your tradition is, I hope it's as warm and heartfelt as simply having a live tree is for me.