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Over the Garden Fence

Christmas tree traditions and care practices

Part of holiday tree history

Decorating 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 soldiers 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. A more complete history of holiday trees can be found at  

Today’s best care practices

Picking a tree

When selecting your tree this holiday season, freshness of the tree will determine how long the tree will last in your home. This is related to how much moisture is retained 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.

Take a tape measure, as trees always look smaller outdoors!

If becoming a lumber jack for a day is not in the picture, there are plenty of Christmas tree lots that spring up in every community from local Christmas tree growers. Many organizations use this as an annual fundraiser for civic projects, so your money goes to good causes. These trees also are considered fresh, having been handled properly. Truly fresh trees 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.

At-home care

  • Once home, leave the tree outside in the cooler weather and out of the wind until you are ready to bring it inside.
  • 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 in the home. 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; trees can absorb nearly a quart of water a day for several days. Be sure to check for the water level daily and keep the base cut covered for sure. Clean water from the faucet is all that is needed.
  • Closing the heat vent nearest the tree will help it last longer too. Now you are ready to decorate your tree with the family's 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.