Your tree is probably a conifer, such as a fir, pine or cedar. It may be the real thing, grown and cut for the occasion, much like florists’ flowers. Or it might be artificial, but looking so much like a live tree that you can’t tell the difference until it doesn’t turn brown.
These holiday trees are strung with lights and decorated with shiny ornaments. Some of the ornaments are religious symbols (such as stars and angels), some reflect the winter season (snowflakes and icicles), and others are part of the popular culture of Christmas (Santas and stockings). A few nature-themed ornaments show up too. Who doesn’t have a bird or a pinecone ornament? And then there are those family heirlooms: ornaments handmade by your children, or antique glass balls handed down from your grandparents.
How did this custom get started? Let’s go way, way back. Back before modern religions began.
Ancient peoples, especially in northern Europe, suffered the cold of winter and longed for signs of summer. When most of the trees were leafless, an evergreen tree lifted the spirits and gave the people hope that summer would come again. They decorated their abodes with fir branches, sprigs of holly and mistletoe. These bits of greenery reminded them that the dark and cold days of winter would not last forever.
A midwinter holiday was born. Bonfires, dancing and feasting eventually followed. No doubt the early religions were linked to the shortest day of the year and the rising of the sun at that southernmost point on the horizon. And evergreen trees were a key part of it all.
When other historic events happened about the same time as the winter solstice, all these festivals began to share common characteristics: Fires, candles and lights; feasting and gift-giving; plants that stayed green in winter.
It seems that the first “Christmas” trees were a German innovation in the 1500s. To celebrate the Christian religion’s high holiday of the birth of Jesus, a fir tree was brought into the home and decorated with fruit (usually apples), sweets and eventually candles. It had to be a spectacular sight to eyes weary with winter. No wonder the new idea caught on and within a few hundred years, everyone wanted a Christmas tree!
I grew up in Central Texas, in a German community, and we always had a Christmas tree. It was a juniper (Eastern Red Cedar) that grew wild in that part of Texas. We harvested our tree from the roadsides or from wild places on our friends’ farms.
I remember these trees: Kind of scrappy-looking but with a nice “pine” scent. We added lights, some Old World glass balls and maybe some of those weird metal strings called “tinsel.”
It wasn’t until the 1960s that Christmas trees morphed into other things. Do you remember flocked trees? These were cut trees sprayed with a white fluffy substance that resembled snow. The best thing about flocked trees, in my mind, was that they were fire resistant.
Then there were the aluminum trees! So modern, so hip! Everyone had to have one. And so, of course, my family threw tradition out the window and bought one. I recall it didn’t even have any ornaments. It had a color wheel that rotated beneath it turning it from red to green to blue to yellow.
It was fun while it lasted, but within a few years, nearly every household went back to real trees, and to increasingly life-like artificial trees.
I have always loved the tradition of searching for a nicely-shaped juniper every December. Even cutting it down and hauling it home was a family tradition. But years later, when my husband I moved to South Texas, we were confronted with a problem: No wild junipers!
We have been trying to grow our own, but the South Texas soil doesn’t suit these acid-loving Eastern Red Cedars. They are struggling. Maybe in a few years we can harvest one.
But what were we to do this year?
My daughter and I went into the brush searching for a “native” Christmas tree. The brush has a number of evergreen species. We looked at Colima and Blackbrush—way too thorny! We considered Elbow-bush—too wispy. Guajillo had nice ferny leaves, but they were yellowing. Finally, we found it—a small Live Oak growing in a fence row.
The Live Oak has been a perfect Christmas tree. It has stayed green for two weeks. It sets off our traditional and natural ornaments nicely. Above all, it suits us.
I am now convinced that there are other ways to go native. You could use a branch from a Texas Persimmon (another brush country species.) Persimmons have lovely smooth bark that would make a pretty, minimalist Christmas tree.
Another great tree is not a tree at all, but the bloom spike of the Century Plant (Agave americana.) These grow extremely well in South Texas and into Mexico. They don’t bloom every year, but when they do, they are spectacular. A bloom spike can reach 30 feet tall, so you’ll need a high ceiling to use one indoors. But once the flowers, seed pods and plantlets are gone from the branches, the dried stalk is arid-country beautiful. And it can be saved and used year after year.
As a naturalist, I like the idea of using objects from nature to decorate a tree. I have seen lovely trees decorated entirely in seashells and sand dollars. Pine cones, spray-painted or not, are a nice touch. Garlands of seed pods or strings of chile petins would be interesting.
I was quite taken with one hunter’s tree. It was decorated with deer antlers and wild turkey tail feathers. A soft quail-feather boa served as garland. It was a beautiful tree.
There so many ways to bring nature indoors for the holidays. Consider using a native Christmas tree to see you through the dark days of December.