The fir tree has had a part to play in traditional winter festivities across Northern Europe for centuries, and a plaque marks the spot where an evergreen was first displayed in Riga town square as part of Latvia’s New Year celebrations in 1510.
Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert is credited with popularising the Christmas tree in Britain, bringing the tradition from Germany in the 1840s – but Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, had already paved the way, setting up a decorated yew tree at Windsor in 1800. The landed gentry were keen to copy the royal custom and competed to create the best-dressed trees in their front rooms, making firs into a fashion accessory.
Traditions of honouring the woodland date back even further: for the Celts, it was customary to bring a Yule log into the home at the winter solstice of 21st December and place it on the fire. Several European countries shared similar Yuletide customs.
The large log was left to burn slowly over several days, as part of rituals which acknowledged the abundant bounty of nature, giving thanks for its blessings in a community whose families made their home where the hearth was.
Forests covered large areas of land, trees were plentiful and chopping logs for firewood was a practical necessity to keep everyone warm over winter. Few homes have fireplaces these days, and the festive fir serves no such useful purpose, giving up its life not to sustain the lives of others, but purely for decoration.
160,000 tonnes of Christmas trees are discarded nationwide. It’s an ignoble end for the fallen.
The most popular variety is the Nordmann fir, with ‘non-drop’ needles, which takes eight to ten years to grow to a height of six feet. The British Christmas Tree Growers’ Association argues that firs are cultivated as a crop and provide a habitat for wild birds – but this is a product with a short shelf life – required only until Twelfth Night, when tradition dictates that decorations must be taken down.
Of an estimated six to eight million such trees sold around the UK this winter, some will be recycled into wood chippings or compost, but others are flytipped or end up as landfill. The government waste agency Wrap estimates the weight of discarded trees nationwide to be around 160,000 tonnes.
It’s an ignoble end for the fallen, casualties of the commercialisation of Christmas – and it seems a shame to give real trees the chop when there are plenty of attractive alternatives. An artifical tree can be re-used year on year. For those who prefer a natural, minimalist look, baubles hung from bare branches can be equally effective.
Bonsai style bushes trimmed into conical shapes, sold at garden centres and some supermarkets, can be decorated for Christmas, then put outside in the spring as potted plants. Another option is to take the décor outdoors, draping solar-powered fairy lights on branches or bushes, or hanging a wreath of leaves and berries on the front door.
Of course, a real plant or tree is more attractive than an artifical one – but only when it’s living, not when it’s cut off in its prime. Trees which are able to endure the hardships of winter deserve to be for life, not just for Christmas, and are best appreciated in their natural habitat.
Forget the baubles and tinsel, what could be more festive than firs with frosty branches sparkling in the pale winter sunshine? These trees are at their most beautiful the way nature intended – evergreen.