In Praise of Christmas Tree SalesmenTags The EntrepreneurU.S. History
A Peru-born friend of mine complains that Christmas trees have become popular in his native country. Given that Douglas firs aren't exactly part of the indigenous flora in Peru, the (mostly artificial) firs and pines used as Christmas trees in homes across the country strike him as incongruous with local customs and the local environment.
He has a point. But he may be fighting a losing battle.
After all, over the past 400 years, the Christmas tree has taken the world by storm, spreading from Northern Europe to the Americas and beyond.
While the fairly recent adoption of the Christmas tree by some South Americans can probably be blamed partly on the ubiquitous nature of American popular culture, the Christmas tree isn't an American invention by any means, and it was a rare oddity in the US before the nineteenth century.
The Christmas tree is almost certainly a German invention, and it owes much of its North American popularity to German immigrants — both Catholic and Protestant — who arrived in the United States in the nineteenth century.
Indeed, the older stock of American Protestants often looked disapprovingly on Christmas trees as being unacceptably pagan. And, of course, the Puritans of Old New England took a dim view of Christmas overall, even going so far as to outlaw it in the seventeenth century.
Old habits die hard. As late as 1883, the Old Guard could barely contain its disdain for the Christmas tree, with one writer opining in The New York Times that "the German Christmas tree — a rootless and lifeless corpse — was never worthy of the day."
But, in America, as in most of Europe, the Christmas tree won out against most doubters. Today we find Christmas trees far beyond the borders of the old German lands, with trees displayed prominently even in places not exactly known for their evergreen forests: from Rome to the Holy Land, and to Tucson, Arizona.
A Market for Christmas Trees
Although there is certainly a romance around walking into a forest and cutting down one's own Christmas tree, few people on earth live in a place where this sort of thing is feasible.
Even in countries where firs and pines grow naturally, the continued popularity of Christmas trees would never have been possible without the entrepreneurs who worked to deliver Christmas trees at an affordable price. By doing so, they made trees available to city dwellers and others who lived too far from untouched groves of firs and spruces to allow for harvesting as done "in olden times."
As the urban American population grew larger, and as the "German Christmas tree" grew in popularity, entrepreneurs were already finding ways to bring trees to Americans who didn't have access to the coniferous forests of North America. In his book Inventing the Christmas Tree, Bernt Brunner writes:
In 1880 no fewer than 200,000 trees were brought from the Catskill Mountains and the whole New England region by train, boat, and wagon to New York City's Washington Market, a popular place for buying wholesale foods and vegetables. Alongside turkeys and Santas, heaps of trees signaled the coming Christmas season. ... And what was purely a men's affair before, going into the forest in search of a suitable tree, came more into the women's sphere. They could now take part in the selection of a tree.
Thus, thanks to these tree merchants, Christmas trees also became available to single mothers, the disabled, and people who didn't own their own means of personal transportation.
The Challenge of Finding a Good Tree
Scarcity, however, has remained always a problem. Even though North America's forests appear immense, harvesting enough trees in the vicinity of America's cities is not easy. This has long been especially true in the Great Plains region or the American Southwest where trees of any sort are relatively scarce.
Over time, the ongoing problem of finding fresh trees gave birth to the artificial Christmas tree. Brunner suggests some of the earliest trees were born out of wartime scarcity, when "a few pieces of greenery, a candle, or a burning pine shaving served as reminders" and when "some drilled holes in a broomstick and stuck in fir sprigs."
Nor is the need for artificial trees a modern problem. As Brunner notes:
In nineteenth-century Germany a "feather tree" was marketed: instead of branches, it bore large feathers, dyed green and meant to create the illusion of a "real" tree. Such trees were also available in the United States, where they could be purchased with red artificial berries that functioned as candle holders.
Since then, the world of artificial trees has become exceptionally varied. Trees of all sorts, from trees that appear to be covered in snow, to abstract modernist-looking trees, can be found. Pink metal trees, of course, were part of the joke about the commercialization of Christmas as featured in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Those who want "real" looking trees can have them. Many artificial trees today look quite real unless inspected up close.
Even better, many artificial trees are far less prone to easily catching fire than natural trees. The flammability of Christmas trees, of course, has long been a concern of tree owners and a detail long pointed out by early critics of placing a tree "corpse" in one's home.
Nowadays, one can even buy a smoke detector shaped like a Christmas tree ornament, to further minimize risk.
In Praise of Tree Growers, Merchants, and Salesmen
It has become fashionable to disparage the "consumerism" of Christmas time, and to complain that Americans spend to much money at Christmas. Given the debts that Americans take on at Christmas time, there is no doubt some truth to this assessment. But it's important to keep in mind that without the marketplace and its entrepreneurs and workers, even the basics of a festive holiday would be unattainable. It's thanks to markets that turkeys, toys, and Christmas trees can be mass produced and delivered to a great many ordinary people at a reasonable price.
Sure, we could do without Christmas trees and a great many other "commercial" things at Christmas time as well. This would no doubt please our modern day Puritans, as it would please the Puritans of old. But it's hard to image that most people would prefer to live in such a culturally impoverished world.