Nobody I knew when I was a child ever put up their Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving. Of course, the general public didn’t have artificial trees then except for some very disappointing miniature versions made of paper and intended as table-top decorations. Some of the big department stores had rather good-looking artificial trees that they used in their holiday display windows and throughout the stores to get people in a holiday-shopping mood, but they put them up after Thanksgiving, not right after Halloween (or even sooner!) as they do today.
Most people settled for the (scrawny by today’s standards) Douglas Firs that were about the only thing available in the Christmas tree lots of that time. These, having been cut a month or so earlier, were already beginning to lose a few needles and, even when we treated them to a fresh cut and water, we were vacuuming up fallen needles every day until it was time to get rid of the tree sometime around New Year’s Day. Anyone wanting a fresh tree had to raise it themselves or sneak one from some farmer’s timber, one of Iowa’s many state parks, or one growing along a ditch or fence row that “didn’t belong to anybody.”
Today, we have an abundance of Christmas tree farms where families can wander through acres of pruned and shaped trees, of several varieties and sizes, select and cut the “perfect” tree to grace their living room for the holidays. Tree farmers offer a variety of amenities to lure people to their lots, including such things as hay-rides, apple cider, costumed Santa or elf assistants for cutting your tree once you’ve made the big decision. The idea, I suppose, is to make the obtaining of a tree a big family tradition, thus ensuring that you will return next year, and the year after that, and your grandkids will take their children to the same place someday.
While cutting the Christmas tree may have been a family affair many generations ago, it most certainly didn’t involve going to a place that raised trees especially for that purpose. One story is that Martin Luther was so moved by the beauty of a tree under a starry night sky that he cut it down and took it home for his children to enjoy. Whether or not the story is true, we do know that the idea of a decorated tree at Christmas time originated in Germany as did many of the associated traditions. For many years, nearly all but homemade tree ornaments came from Germany. The first Christmas tree in England was purportedly presented to Queen Victoria by her German husband, and the idea spread across Europe, undergoing many variations in the process, and was soon brought to the United States by immigrants from different countries, resulting in a hodge-podge of traditions we can choose from today.
In historical terms, it hasn’t been very long since even we Americans had to go out and find our own Christmas trees, cutting them from our own timber or that of a farmer friend. The idea of raising trees as our present tree-farmers do; pruning and shaping a variety of different kinds of evergreens specifically for that purpose is fairly recent, so I don’t know if we can realistically consider that trip to the tree farm to be a “tradition.” I wholeheartedly approve of today’s Christmas tree farmers who are raising trees specifically for the season, replacing those cut with more seedlings, and providing us with really beautiful fresh trees.
As I recall the Christmas trees of my childhood, they were simply young trees that had been grown for that purpose, but not pruned and shaped. There were many gaps and bare spots where there was no branch or twig to hang an ornament. Our box of Christmas decorations contained several paper “ropes” about an inch thick, similar to the flimsiest of paper “Hawaiian leis” that you can buy at stores that sell party goods. We used those to string between branches and fill in some of the gaps so that we had a place to hang ornaments. We didn’t have a lot of ornaments; maybe a dozen glass balls, three or four glass birds, a couple of plastic snowmen or Santas, a few handmade things that survived from year to year, and a lot of crinkled tinsel “icicles” that were silver on one side and blue on the reverse, and one string of eight lights. But, after it was decorated, we sipped cocoa and dreamed of Christmas morning, and our Christmas tree was beautiful and magical.