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O Christmas Trees

December 2, 2012
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer (gvalenti@timesleaderonline.com) , Times Leader

"Its decorations shall be superb, superfine, superfrostical, shnockagastical, double refined, mill' twill'd made of Dog's Wool, Swingling Tow, and Posnum fur; which cannot fail to gratisfy taste." This was a meeting announcement in a York, Pa. newspaper on Dec. 23, 1823 describing a "Kris Kringle tree," and, spelling differences aside, is one of the earliest literary mentions of an American Christmas tree.

Not even 200 years earlier, any form of Christmas celebration in general was a punishable offense in the colonies. The Puritans of the 1600's discouraged and disparaged any "reveling," "caroling" and "feasting" on a day that they felt was strongly connected to the Catholic church. Like so many ancient holiday traditions, what we know as the Christmas tree today, so ingrained in this season's celebration, has evolved from practices around long before the birth of Christ.

Civilizations even prior to the Egyptians recognized first, the lengthening days after the winter solstice in December and, second, that some plants retained their greenery all year. To the pagan mind, the god(s) of the Sun (Ra for the Egyptians) became ill or weak as winter approached and then regained strength, signified by the lengthening days. Early Romans paid homage to Saturn, the god of agriculture, as days grew longer.

Article Photos

T-L Photos/GLYNIS?VALENTI
These trees at Weirzbicki’s Tree Farm have their root balls intact and can be replanted after Christmas. Antonia Weirzbicki says that many people buy these to keep their purchases environmentally friendly.

Evergreen boughs have symbolized eternal or everlasting life in many, many cultures. They have always been used this time of year to encourage and celebrate the coming spring and offer hope amidst the cold, dark, barren days of winter. The Druids and Vikings, who worshipped trees, brought in evergreens to ward off evil spirits for the coming year. This wasn't limited to the trees we recognize today, but they gathered greens from holly and hawthorn trees, and laurel, mistletoe, juniper and ivy, too.

The beginnings of a Christmas-related tree is generally traced back to a documented incident involving St. Boniface, an English Catholic Bishop, sent to Germany as a missionary in the eighth century. He converted a large segment of the population and returned to Rome to consult with Pope Gregory II. Upon his return to Germany for Christmas in 723, he discovered the town preparing for a sacrifice at Odin's tree - a pagan practice. Incensed, St. Boniface chopped the tree down. He diverted everyone's attention to a small fir tree nearby as a symbol of everlasting life, noting that its shape pointed toward heaven, and urged the people to bring fir trees home for the season.

In medieval Europe, religious "mystery plays" were held on Dec. 24. A recreation of the Adam and Eve story necessitated a tree set. Since the only green trees available in December were pines, firs and such, they were the Eden trees of choice and were decorated with red apples and wafers (for redemption). Centuries later red glass balls and baubles would replace the apples.

Seasonal decorated trees first became popular in Germany and Latvia during the 1400's when guild halls began the practice of filling tree branches with fruits and nuts then allowing children to collect the goodies on Christmas Day. Some guilds would decorate trees for events, then take the trees to a town square afterwards for the community to enjoy. It became more common as a Protestant practice and seen as a German custom as trees began appearing in German homes. Elsewhere in Europe, Catholics followed the tradition of bringing a crib into the home for the Christ Child.

By the 19th century decorated trees had swept east and west from Russia to France. Britain's alliance with Germany brought the custom to England. Queen Victoria as a young girl loved the tradition, and when she married Prince Albert, her German cousin, it became widespread.

In the mid-1800's the Christmas tree finally reached America as a bona fide custom for the masses. A popular holiday woodcut of Queen Victoria and her family was published in 1850 in Godey's Lady's Book. Within two decades, Christmas trees were commonplace. In 1856, Franklin Pierce was the first United States President to have a tree at the White House. The National Tree Lighting Ceremony began in 1923 with President Calvin Coolidge.

A German immigrant in Wooster, Ohio had the idea of putting candy canes on the tree in 1847. Bringing his beloved old country custom to his new home, he used a spruce tree with a hand-crafted tin star for the topper and hung candy canes and paper ornaments from the branches. He's officially recognized for this by the National Confectioners Association.

The first American commercial retail Christmas tree lot was in New York City in 1851. Last year, fresh tree retail sales totaled over $1 billion in the United States, with approximately 63 percent of households purchasing real trees as opposed to artificial. Oregon is the largest Christmas tree producer with seven million trees produced on 40,000 dedicated acres. The industry employs more than 100,000 people during the season.

If deciding between real and artificial trees, consider the following facts: 1. real trees remove dust and pollen from the air; 2. one acre of Christmas trees provides enough daily oxygen for 18 people; 3. while artificial trees have an average usage life of six years in the home, it's estimated life in a landfill will last several centuries.

In Belmont County, two families have been growing and selling Christmas trees for more than 60 years each, and for them the work spans all four seasons. Antonia Wierzbicki still runs the tree farm her husband started in the 1950's on the hills above Bridgeport. She is still out in the fields every day working on inventory, mowing or planting, and during the retail season (which began in September this year) she is out side by side with her children and grandchildren trimming and bundling greens and helping customers.

The farm offers eight types of evergreens for retail, the most popular being Fraser fir and Canaan fir. Customers can visit the lots early and choose a tree to be fresh cut for a certain date, have it cut that day or choose a "ball and burlap" live tree that can be replanted. Sizes range from the "Charlie Brown trees" in a box for children to 30 ft. large-scale display trees. Wreaths this year are made by Antonia's daughter, Toni, who owns Bellisima Floral (also located at the farm). Her son Ted has a tree farm in another county, but often helps out the family business.

Antonia keeps a running inventory of the trees - what has been cut and what is to be cut for whom - no small feat when planting more than 3,000 trees per year.

"She does it in her head," says Toni. "My mother is like a computer." As people request and tag their family trees, it goes into an inventory book, and Antonia makes mental notes for people looking for specific types or sizes of trees.

As with any farm, Antonia says the trickiest part can be dealing with Mother Nature. Too much or too little rain, searing heat and wildlife can affect young trees like any other crop. Christmas trees, however, are in the ground growing for an average of 10 to 15 years, so pests or weather could affect several years' worth of inventory rather than only the current year's.

Theresa Feisley, of Feisley's Tree Farm (www.feisleytrees.com) in Belmont, agrees. "Mother Nature has her own set of rules. She can be your best friend or your worst nightmare."

This is a huge concern for a 600-acre farm that wholesales to more than 50 customers and runs a popular retail operation that includes wagon rides through the fields to choose and cut your own trees. They grow four types of popular Christmas trees, including the Fraser fir, and won the 2012 State Grand Champion Award for a Scotch pine.

Feisley's is located on the family farm and was started by Theresa's father-in-law, John, in 1952. When the wholesale season starts (this year it was Nov. 6), they begin cutting and shipping trees, coordinating orders and semi-trucks. Theresa says they wait as late as possible so that trees are fresh for the retailers and customers, wherever they are. Fourteen-hour work days are common in November even with the additional 8 to 12 seasonal employees. They also host weddings, class reunions and non-profit benefit events like wreath-making classes.

The end result for both businesses is about the tradition of the Christmas tree and being a part of customers' memories. Antonia mentions families that have been getting trees there for 40 years. Theresa notes that there are people who come the same weekends each year and have developed yearly "friendships" with other families who come on the same day.

"As busy as we are," adds Theresa, "we keep the traditions alive. We have nine trees in our own house. It's a season to spend time with loved ones and make memories. That's what's important."

For information on Wierzbicki's Tree Farm, call (740) 633-1125. For information on Feisley's Tree Farm, visit their website or call (740) 782-1846.

 
 

 

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