In early January, something mysterious happens in neighborhoods across New York City… Seemingly overnight, an immense evergreen forest materializes on the sidewalks, composed of thousands of discarded Christmas trees.
I’ve watched these carefully selected centerpieces, only recently so lovingly adorned with ornaments, grow increasingly coated in dog pee as they decay on the curb. Their once fragrant needles now litter the pavement like leftover New Year’s Eve confetti.
The more I think about this phenomenon, the more surreal it seems. Why do we bring trees into our houses at Christmas? How big is the Christmas tree industry in the U.S.? Who deals with all of these trashed city trees? What’s the environmental impact?
Inquiring minds who want to know, read on!
History of the Christmas Tree
Before the rise of Christianity, the veneration of trees was common across many cultures and sects. Ancient Egyptians celebrated the solstice as a sacred turning point for their Sun god, Ra, whose reign in the sky had been in decline for the previous six months. They decorated with green palm rushes to symbolize his triumph over death. Romans similarly marked the solstice in their Saturnalia celebrations, adorning temples with evergreen boughs as a reminder that the god of agriculture would soon return to make their fields and orchards verdant once again. Celts and Norse, Chinese, and Hebrew people alike expressed special appreciation for the evergreens in their regions and their ability to weather all seasons.
The tradition of the Christmas tree as we know it can be traced back to medieval Germany where, on December 24th, a religious feast day for Adam and Eve was observed. A fir tree was brought into the home and hung with apples and eucharist wafers, signifying the “Paradise tree” of Eden. Adjacent to the tree they constructed a “Christmas pyramid” with wooden shelves holding figurines, candles, and a star. In the 16th-century, a Protestant reformer named Martin Luther was said to be walking home one evening when he was awestruck by the sight of stars twinkling through wintery evergreens. Eager to recreate the scene for his family, he attached candles to their tree. Components from the Paradise tree and Christmas pyramid eventually merged into our modern-day Christmas tree topped with a star and adorned with figurines, round ornaments, and twinkling lights.
Over the next few centuries, the tradition gained in popularity, and in the 1800s, German-born Prince Albert and his wife, Queen Victoria, popularized the Christmas tree in Great Britain and its colonies. The Puritanical New Englanders, who had previously frowned upon Christmas trees as pagan symbols, were soon overruled, and an influx of German and Irish immigrants to “the New World” cemented the tradition. Fast forward to recent decades, and Christmas celebrations have been carried around the globe via Christian missionaries. The festivities have also grown increasingly secular, and a booming industry consumed with all things Holiday Season has become a fixture of American culture.
The Christmas tree industry
According to the National Christmas Tree Association (yes, that’s a thing), about 15,000 farms are employing over 100,000 full or part-time employees who grow Real Christmas Trees in the United States. On these farms, around 350,000 acres are dedicated to the approximately 350 million trees planted there by farmers. In 2019, an estimated 26.2 million real Christmas trees were purchased with a median price of $76.
The U.S. Forest Service also sells cut-your-own Christmas tree permits in National Forests across the country. For $5-20 per permit (depending on the location) citizens can harvest their own trees under a certain size and in specified areas. Though I haven’t found the total revenue numbers for these permits, both the Eldorado National Forest in California and White River National Forest in Colorado reportedly sold out of the 6,500 permits they each made available this winter. As of now, 76 National Forests participate in this program, potentially bringing in millions of dollars to be reinvested in the maintenance and management of our forest lands.
The best-selling species in the U.S. are Fraser fir at #1, followed by the Noble fir, Douglas fir, Balsam fir, and Scotch pine. White pines, Spruces, and Cyprus trees are also common selects. In fact, on a recent walk from my apartment in Brooklyn to the Post Office, I identified some of each genus, casually counting 115 trashed trees in a 1-mile loop. Here’s what it would look like if they were growing on an American football field instead.
It may gladden you to know that these trees are not all destined for the landfill. Here, as in many cities, the Department of Sanitation has specified a pick-up period when the holiday leftovers will be hauled to the chipper to become valuable mulch for the Parks Department. Locals can also drag their used trees to the parks during the annual MulchFest, and are rewarded with bags of woodchips that can be used in their neighborhood tree pits and yards.
Some opt to forgo all this hassle and buy artificial trees. Proponents of the fakes enjoy a tree that doesn’t require water or shed needles and can be stored for multiple reuses, yielding an annual return on investment. That said, they are typically made of metal and plastic, and the majority of those sold in the U.S. (85%) have been imported from China. This means that the average carbon footprint of a fake tree is much greater than that of a real tree, even if that real tree ends up in a bonfire or landfill. A fake tree would need to be revived for more than 12 Christmases to offset the environmental impact.
For a more eco-friendly Christmas, some people opt for a potted tree that can be planted later in the spring. Folks with nowhere to plant can even turn to the burgeoning tree-rental service industry. Companies like Living Christmas, in Los Angeles, deliver the potted tree of your choice along with instructions for its care, then pick it up after the holidays to tend to it until the next holiday season. Another option is to improvise with tropical, desert, or other indoor plants like my parents did in ‘99 with this Euphorbia cactus. I remember being outraged at the time, but now I find it quite charming. Add a pine tree car freshener...et voila!
(Please enjoy more family photos sent by my mom when I asked her to dig up the cactus picture… :)