The presents are open. The stockings are empty. The leftovers are gone. A new year is almost upon us and many folks are starting to think about when to take down that tree. Before you put that tree out on the curb and out of your mind for another year, let’s take a moment to consider a brief history of the American Christmas tree.
Did you know, for example, that the Christian Christmas tree tradition was not embraced in the United States until about the mid-nineteenth century? America’s Puritan cultural heritage meant that such pagan traditions as the Christmas tree were not generally embraced. This all changed, however, with the arrival of thousands of German immigrants who settled in the United States in the first several decades of the nineteenth century. These settlers brought with them their cultural traditions from home, and the Christmas tree took root in America.
Then, in 1848, a British magazine, the London Illustrated News, published an illustration of Queen Victoria celebrating the season with Prince Albert and their royal children gathered around a Christmas tree. Godey’s Lady’s Book published the image two years later, and the Christmas tree was officially fashionable in America.
If you are anything like me, when you think about the “traditional” American Christmas tree experience, you imagine a quaint family outing into the woods and a triumphant return to civilization with the perfect specimen. (Actually, if you’re like me, you think of the scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where the Griswold family treks into the wilderness only to realize they have forgotten to bring a chopping implement! I digress!) Despite the commonly-held romantic vision of Yuletide American individualism, the American Christmas tree was, almost from its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, a market commodity, with vendors selling trees to the urban middle classes. New Yorkers, for example, could venture to Washington Market to purchase trees harvested from the Catskill Mountains as early as 1851.
While some people still ventured into the woods to find the perfect tree, most Americans continued to purchase their trees from small, local stands until well into the twentieth century.
By the 1940s, changes in forestry practices and popular support for tree conservation led to the rise of “tree farms.” The timber industry first began forming tree farms to stave off both the threat of forest fire and government regulation. In 1941, the Washington state based Weyerhaeuser Timber Company created the first American tree farm, signaling a shift away from the “tree mining” view of the bygone logging days in favor of a more universally accepted image of agricultural production. Americans increasingly viewed forest industries as exploitative and harmful, and many were pushing for conservation of American wilderness. The tree farm movement had three goals: to educate the public about fire prevention; to increase the sustainability of timberlands; and to cultivate trees as commercial agricultural crops. Organizations such as the American Forest Products Industries embarked on public service campaigns to improve public opinion of forest industries. These campaigns often used forest-related characters, and focused heavily on fire-prevention. (One of these characters was a short-lived anthropomorphized “smiling, animated log” named Woody.)
Like most commercial crops, Christmas trees needed a reliable, seasonal workforce. Christmas tree cultivation was, and remains, extremely labor-intensive. It requires constant pest control and application of pesticides, as well as sheering and pruning to create the perfect Christmas tree shape. Christmas tree plantations needed labor, and beginning in 1942, some plantation owners made use of migrant workers brought to the United States through the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program, commonly referred to as the bracero program, which imported laborers from Mexico to the United States from 1942 until 1964. These workers followed crop harvests, and many found work on Christmas tree plantations. Living and working conditions on these farms, like all the farms on the migrant circuit, varied. The work, however, was consistently demanding, and the pay was consistently low. By the end of World War II, Americans wanted their Christmas trees to have full branches and low price tags. It was largely through the labor of migrant workers, then, that Americans fulfilled their wishes for the perfect Christmas tree.
The use of migrant workers to cultivate Christmas trees has continued into the twenty-first century. Most Americans have little knowledge of, or interest in, the plight of these laborers, workers who can rarely purchase the goods they help to produce. Hidden or forgotten, these workers continue today, year-round, to bring us our perfect trees. As you take that tree down this year, take a moment to remember the hard working people who grew it.
For more on the history of American tree farming, see Paul Sharp, “The Tree Farm Movement: Its Origin and Development,” Agricultural History, vol. 23 (Jan., 1949), pp. 41-45.
For more on the American Forest Institute and Woody the Log, see the Forest History Society’s History of the American Tree Farm System, and Forgotten Characters from Forest History: “Woody”, on the Forest History Society’s blog, Peeling Back the Bark.