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Killing trees to celebrate life: the strange reality of Christmas tree production

December 26, 2011

This morning MLive posted their yearly story on what people can do with their Christmas trees now that the holiday is over.

The article mostly consists of information on where one can take their tree to be recycled. Besides listing where one can take their holiday trees the article cites the hotel manager for the downtown Grand Rapids Holiday Inn, which is offer free Christmas tree recycling this week.

However, the language that the MLive writer uses at the beginning of the article is worth noting, when he writes, “it’s time to give your lovely Douglas Fir the heave-ho before the carpet is completely covered in pine needles.”

This kind of language reflects the general attitude of the culture about Christmas trees that is similar to how the culture tends to view many living things……as nothing more than a commodity to be consumed and discarded once it has served our purpose.

Christmas tree production in the US is a major industry, with roughly 350,000 acres of land committed to Christmas tree production, with an estimated 25 – 30 million sold in the US each year.

If one were to do an online search about the ecological impact of Christmas tree production, most of the first few pages on any search would take you to sites by the Christmas tree industry. These sites of course are not only arguing that that Christmas tree production is “green,” but the industry frames the debate between real and artificial trees.

A good example of this “comparison” comes from the National Christmas Tree Association, with the headline, Making an Eco-friendly choice. However, the debate should not be limited to or focused on real trees versus artificial ones. Instead, we need to change the debate to, is Christmas tree production necessary and is it really environmentally sustainable?

Let’s look at the later question first. Most Christmas trees are grown as a mono-crop, which means that it’s usually the only thing planted in significant numbers in a specific area. Mono-crops are never good for any ecosystem, because they are more susceptible to disease and insect infestation. The usual way that Christmas tree growers deal with this problem is by applying pesticides. According to the group Beyond Pesticides, there are 25 different pesticides used in Christmas tree farming in the US. The use of these pesticides are “linked to one or more adverse effects, including cancer, hormonal disruption, neurotoxicity, organ damage, reproductive/birth defects, asthma, environmental effects and more.”

This means that the pesticides are brought into your home when you put up a Christmas tree, but it also means that the wildlife that interacts with the sprayed trees – birds, insects and small mammals – will also be adversely effected. In addition, those who work on Christmas tree farms that use pesticides will also be negatively affected. In the US there are small family owned Christmas tree farms and there are larger ones, which disproportionately rely on migrant workers. So, not only does the Christmas tree industry put migrant workers at risk of pesticide exposure, they also rely on paying low wages.

Now to the question of whether or not Christmas trees are even necessary. Christmas trees were incorporated into the Christian holiday centuries after the beginning of their religious tradition. Christians in northern Europe incorporated evergreen trees into their celebration because of their interaction with Druids. Druids worship these trees because they remained green even in the dead of winter. However, Druids did not kill the trees by cutting them down and putting them into their homes. This would have been antithetical to their religious beliefs.

However, since there has been a strong theological tendency within Christianity to view nature as there for human use, they had no problem killing the evergreen trees for their own religious purposes. However, it seems rather ironic that Christians kill something to celebrate a holiday based on the birth of their savior, use it for a few weeks and then discard it like any other commodity.

It seems that instead of encouraging people to recycle their Christmas trees, we might want to ask more fundamental questions like do we even need to grow these kinds of trees solely for the purpose of using them for a few weeks during a religious holiday? Not surprising, these are not questions that MLive reporters are asking.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. kswheeler permalink
    December 26, 2011 10:27 pm

    Most people believe that Christmas trees, which have their origin in Germany, were not popular until the 15th century. There’s a legend about St. Boniface cutting down an oak tree that he found some Druids worshipping, and a small evergreen tree sprung up in its place–making it an offcial Christian symbol.

    But Druids did cut down lots of trees during their Winter Solstice celebrations–for Yule logs, primarily. Although it’s debatable whether or not they cut down and brought evergreen trees indoors, they cut down large quantities of other evergreens–mistletoe and holly–for various religious rites. Often they would cut down entire holly trees. Like Christmas that followed later, the feast of Yule lasted 12 days.

    There are also some historians who believe that the Nordic people would decorate the great hall of their leader with a chopped-down tree, on which they’d hang their swords, drinking horns, and axes as decoration. This required the cutting-down of a very large tree, usually an ash tree.

  2. December 26, 2011 10:49 pm

    Kate, thanks for your comments. From my reading there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on some of this history, but what does seem to be clear is that what motivated the Druids and other pagans groups to honor evergreen trees was out of a deep respect for nature, unlike the contemporary Christmas tree industry, which sees the trees as merely commodities to make a profit from. One source that I have relied on that looks at how Christianity adopted numerous pagan traditions and assimilated them into the Christian tradition as a means of winning over people with various local spiritual traditions. The source is Sacred Sex, Sacred Land, and Relationship, By Dolores LaChapelle.

  3. kswheeler permalink
    December 27, 2011 2:50 pm

    Jeff, I’ve read that book–it’s great. And yes, the early Christian evangelists were very clever, or so they thought, in incorporating the symbology of other religions into theirs to draw people in. But that strategy had disastrous consequences, too…

    One great example is the Jesuits who “converted” the Wendot and Huron peoples in what is now the Detroit/Windsor area. They told the Indians that if they became Christians, God would “adopt” them and make them part of his family.

    Unfortunately for the Jesuits, they were completely clueless about what that statement meant to those tribes. In the Wendot culture and others in the area, you can actually “divorce” yourself from a family member–say you have a brother who has behaved badly, or committed a crime, or a father who abused you. You can publicly state that that person is no longer your brother or your father, and from that point on, they aren’t. However, if you are adopted into a family, they can never break that bond with you–they’re stuck with you for life no matter what you do. To the Indians, the fact that they had been adopted meant they never had to go to confession, or at least never had to take it seriously. Generations later in that area, the Catholic priests are still tearing their hair out trying to fix the work of the “cunning” Jesuits of the 1700s.

    As for the trees, I take your point in your comment. I was mostly responding to your statement in the article that Druids never cut down trees and put them in their homes, which doesn’t seem to be true, as they’d put whole holly trees in their homes. And to find a Yule log big enough to burn for 12 days and 12 nights, as another example, you’d have to cut down a fairly big tree.

  4. kswheeler permalink
    December 27, 2011 6:47 pm

    Also, I wanted to note that many people in the UK and Ireland buy live trees (what’s called “tabletop” size, which are popular in England in particular) and then either plant them or donate them to parks after Christmas. They’ve been doing this throughout the UK since I was a child.

    As to whether Christmas trees are important–they are, as I noted in my first post, a Christian-related symbol, just as the holly,mistletoe, and Yule logs were Druid religious symbols. I don’t see why they should be disrespected as such as long as people find sustainable ways to use them. Christmas tree farms, etc., really have to go.

  5. Jill R. Sidebottom permalink
    December 27, 2011 8:18 pm

    In actuality, Christmas trees are not grown in a monoculture. Of course they are the only commercial species being grown, but surrounding the trees are ground covers. In North Carolina, those ground covers are managed to keep the soil from being exposed, and to provide a habitat for natural predators which feed on pests. Ground covers that are favored are clover which help provide the nitrogen needs of the growing trees. But many woodland species of plants are also present including wood sorrel, violets, ground ivy, purple deadneetle, yarrow, daisies, and many more. These ground covers provide abundant habitat for wildlife. For each Christmas tree grown, there is approximately 25 square feet of green space. In most cases, this farmland that would have been sold for development if it was not for Christmas tree production.

    Christmas tree plantations, being small trees, are a early successional forest. They provide shelter and food for quail and grouse, small rodents, and any manner of wildlife. There are bees and butterflies feeding on wildflowers. And though I’m sure there are at least 25 pesticides that are labeled for use on Christmas trees, growers use far fewer — on average less than four. In fact, in NC, growers have cut their pesticide use in half from 2000 to 2006 and that number continues to drop. There have been workshops teaching Latino farmworkers to scout for pests to reduce the need for pesticides even more as well as the safe use of these pesticides.

    The industry does use a lot of Latino labor, as all agricultural production does any more. But I know of men who have come every year to the same tree farm because they are well respected. They money they make has put children through college in Mexico. Latinos have purchased their own land and started raising their own trees, or have developed businesses where they employ others to take care of other peoples trees. Most workers prefer working in trees because they get the hours they want, and it isn’t hot like it is working off the mountain.

    And just what does this real tree mean to a young child? I think Arthur Sowers with the US Forest Service said it best in 1949, back when most trees were taken from forests: “…there is no reason why the joy associated with the Christmas evergreen may not be a means of arousing in the minds of children an appreciation of the beauty and usefulness of trees; and keen appreciation of the beauty and usefulness of trees is a long stop toward the will to plant and care for them.”

    Using a real Christmas tree is not disrespecting nature. It is helping to support an industry that keeps land in agriculture, provides habitat for wildlife, and allows farm families to stay on the land.

  6. Jeff Smith permalink*
    December 27, 2011 8:25 pm

    Of course you would say those things since you are part of the Christmas Tree industry. When trees become commodities for profit, then you can use all sorts of justifications to maintain any industry.

  7. Jill Sidebottom permalink
    December 28, 2011 3:47 pm

    I report the observations I have made truthfully. You are more than welcome to come visit us in NC to make your own judgments. Please email me and plan a visit this spring.

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