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Over the Garden Fence

History and helpful hints for Christmas trees

evergreen tree with red ornaments

A brief history of decorating evergreens

The decorating of the evergreen trees at Christmas is an old German custom that originated in the region along the upper Rhine River. The Christmas tree was first brought to America by Hessian troops during the Revolutionary War and, another early account tells of American solders setting up and decorating a tree at the wilderness outpost of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) in 1804. In the early 1800s, celebrating Christmas with a tree was still considered a quaint foreign custom, practiced mostly by the German settlers in Eastern Pennsylvania. During the 1850s, the Christmas tree became fashionable along the East Coast, and in 1856, President Franklin Pierce had a Christmas tree brought into the White House as a treat for a group of Sunday school children. The custom continued to gain popularity and in 1923, the first national Christmas tree was displayed in the Capital. Ten years, later, the tradition at Rockefeller Center began.

How to select a fresh tree

When selecting your tree this holiday season, freshness of the tree will determine how long the tree will last in your home. It is all about how much moisture is in the evergreen needles. The freshest tree will be those you cut yourself. Make it a family adventure and take the camera with to capture the moment. Most cut-your-own locations will supply you with the saw and with twine to secure the tree for the ride home. If becoming a lumber jack for a day is not in the picture, there are plenty of Christmas tree lots in every community. Many organizations use this as an annual fundraiser, so your money goes to good causes. These trees also are considered fresh, if they have been handled properly. If the trees are fresh, they will retain their pungent evergreen smell and their dark waxy color. Stay away from trees that are already dropping lots of needles, it will only get worse inside your home and that can be a fire hazard later.

How to care for your Christmas tree

Once your tree is home, leave it outside in the cooler weather on the north side of the home and out of the wind until you are ready to decorate it. Trees that have been cut for more than a day will need a fresh cut so the tree can absorb as much water as it can inside your home. You can get a head start on this by setting the trunk into a bucket of warm water before you place it into the tree stand. Make that cut as true as possible to ensure the tree will stand straight in the stand. Get water into the basin as soon as you can so it does not dry out. Your tree will take up lots water in the first few days and then taper off. Trees can absorb nearly a quart of water a day for several days. Be sure to check the water level daily and keep the base cut emerged. Clean water from the kitchen faucet is all that is needed. Christmas trees do not respond to extenders like our floral arrangements do. Closing the heat vent nearest the tree will help too. Now you are ready to decorate your tree with the family favorite ornaments and lights, and enjoy the tree for several weeks.

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.