Jeff Semler: Finding that perfect Christmas tree

November 28, 2011|Jeff Semler
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Although you might think I am jumping the gun a little, I know that before the Thanksgiving turkey was cold thousands of folks were flooding the shopping malls and Christmas tree lots.  

Thus, many families will celebrate the holidays with the fragrance and beauty of a real Christmas tree.

The first recorded reference to the Christmas tree dates back to the 16th century. In Strasbourg, on the border of France and Germany, families both rich and poor decorated fir trees with colored paper, fruits and sweets.  

The retail Christmas tree lot also dates back that far. In those times, women would take trees harvested from nearby forests to sell in the marketplace.

The tradition spread through Europe and was brought back to the United States by German settlers and by Hessian mercenaries paid to fight in the Revolutionary War. In 1804, U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn (near Chicago) hauled trees from surrounding woods to their barracks at Christmas.

The popularity of the Christmas tree proliferated. Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of decorating trees in Williamsburg, Va., in 1842. In 1851, Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds loaded with trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York City and opened the first retail lot in the U.S.

Franklin Pierce, our 14th president, brought the Christmas tree tradition to the White House. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree- lighting ceremony, now held each year on the Elipse across from the White House.

Since 1966, members of the National Christmas Tree Association have presented a fresh Christmas tree to the president and first family. The tree is displayed each year in the Blue Room of the White House.

Even though you might not live in the White House, you and thousands of other families will choose to enjoy the fragence and beauty of a real tree this Christmas.

When you get the tree home, place it in a cool, sheltered location. Put the butt of the tree in a bucket of water. Saw off one inch of wood at the bottom of the trunk before bringing the tree indoors. A fresh cut helps facilitate water uptake. Place and secure the tree in its stand and fill the reservoir with water. Check the water supply at least twice a day and add water as needed. Promptly remove the tree when it begins to dry and drop needles.

 The choice for me is simple.

I’ve always enjoyed walking through the snow on a crisp winter day, saw in hand, searching for the perfect tree at a local tree farm. (Of course, I conveniently forget those times when I’ve gotten stuck in the mud and snow, hurt my back throwing the tree in the back of the pickup, the tree rolling out of the truck onto the road or have nearly frozen to death searching, searching, searching for the perfect tree.)

All the work (and occasional mishaps) are well worth it when the fragrance and beauty of the perfect tree fills the house.

 So to insure a fresh tree, putting it to a few tests on the tree lot can help. The easiest test is to take a needle off the tree and flex it between your forefingers and thumb. The needle should be fresh enough to bend and spring back. If it’s too stiff to bend, or if it breaks, the tree is not fresh.

Another test is to pick up the tree and gently thump the bottom of the trunk against the ground. Some needles will fall off when you do this, but it should only be a few. If there’s a cascade of needles, don’t buy the tree.

You also can gently pull on a branch, allowing it to slide through your hand. If you have a hand full of tree needles after this test, look for another tree.

And don’t get carried away and cart home a tree that’s too big for its new location, which in most cases is the corner of a room. Trees look smaller outside, once you get them in the house, you could be in for a surprise. Measure the height of the room first, and don’t forget that the tree stand will add to the tree’s height. An oversized tree is a waste of money because you’ll just have to saw off the bottom.

Once you’ve brought your tree home, cut at least an inch off the bottom of the trunk and immediately place the tree in water. Display the tree in a cool room in a stand that holds at least two quarts of water. Check its water daily; a Christmas tree can consume more than a quart of water a day.

Keep the tree away from heat sources, such as fireplaces, wood stoves, radiators and heating vents. These will dry out a tree prematurely, but more important, there’s a fire hazard.  

Before putting lights on the tree, check the cords and connections to make sure they’re not cracked or broken. Fill all the light sockets on a cord; empty light sockets can cause a fire. Before going to bed or leaving the house, unplug the Christmas tree lights.

If you’ve thought far enough ahead to be considering a live Christmas tree this year to then be added to your landscape, be sure to dig the planting hole now, while the ground is still unfrozen. Cover the planting hole with a piece of plywood to prevent anyone from falling into the hole. Soil from the planting hole can be placed on a tarp and moved off the grass so the grass won’t be smothered.

Too often live trees remain too long in the home and then are left standing outside until spring. Their chances of survival under these conditions are low. Live trees should be kept in the house for not more than 10 days, and preferably in a cool room, to prevent the roots from drying and to avoid breaking dormancy of the plant’s buds.  Before planting, leave the tree for a few days in a cool garage to allow it to adjust to cold temperatures. Water thoroughly after planting and, if possible, protect it on the south and west sides from the drying effects of the sun.

Whether selecting a cut tree, cutting your own or buying one to replant, select one that has a straight trunk. It will be much easier to set it upright in the stand. Check the diameter of the trunk to make sure it will fit in your stand. A tree with a bare side might be fine if you intend to place it in a corner or against a wall.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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