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Eternal Evergreens

Now that the deciduous trees have shed their leaves, the woods seem bare and dreary. Maybe that is why I spend much of the winter down in the hollow among the hemlocks or up in the Norway spruce grove. Both offer shelter and comfort on the coldest, bleakest winter days.

The birds and animals, too, seek refuge in the evergreen groves. The spruces fill up with dozens of dark-eyed juncos every evening along with a roosting ruffed grouse or two and a pair of northern cardinals. Porcupines and deer leave piles of their telltale scat and signs of browsed spruce branches and gnawed bark. In the hemlocks, I often find foraging black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, and golden-crowned kinglets.

When my eyes hunger for the sight of green after months in a mostly black and white world, I am also comforted by the thousands of mountain laurel shrubs bearing shining evergreen leaves that gleam in the winter sunshine. Overhanging our stream or halfway up Laurel Ridge on Rhododendron Trail, the large, leathery, green leaves of rhododendron shrubs roll themselves into green cylinders during the bitter cold.

Walking miles along Laurel Ridge Trail, I stop to admire the scraggly beauty of occasional pitch pine trees growing among the leafless oaks. Lower down on the mountain I encounter here and there a tall, stately white pine tree along Short Circuit Trail or beside our access road down the hollow.

Most of these evergreen trees and shrubs have been used to deck our home every Christmas. Heavy winter winds usually prune a few white pine and hemlock boughs that we gather to lay on the mantelpiece and windowsills. For many years, a Norway spruce did duty first as our Christmas tree and then outside, below the bird feeders, as shelter and a landing post for the birds. Once our son Dave even cut a mountain laurel shrub to use as a tree. But we all agreed that although it looked elegant, gleaming with Christmas lights, it wasn’t nearly large enough to hold our collection of ornaments, including white pine cones our sons painted when they were children.

Unlike most folks today, we still decorate our tree on Christmas Eve and take it down shortly after New Year’s Day. By then our greens have shed their needles and the tree is brittle despite standing in water. Our Christmas Eve tradition began as a way to keep our three little sons occupied. I had them scheduled from morning, when we made gingerbread men to hang on the tree along with all the other ornaments, through the afternoon when they took presents over to our neighbor Margaret and serenaded her with Christmas carols on their autoharp and she, in turn, told them stories about the mountain, until evening when we had a little Christmas Eve service around the tree–reading the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke, hearing a record of “The Night Before Christmas” that their paternal grandmother had made for them, and singing Christmas carols in a room lit only by flickering candles.

Long after they reached the age of reason, they followed the same pattern, and they still expect, even now, if they come for the holidays, to put the tree up on Christmas Eve. Last Christmas, with only the three of us, our son Dave insisted on a tree and all the trimmings, on the greens and crèche figures on the mantelpiece, and on the candles in the windows.

The tradition of using evergreens during the darkest days of the year predates Christmas by many centuries. During Saturnalia, a celebration honoring Saturnus, the god of agriculture, Romans exchanged tree branches with friends as good luck symbols. As part of this mid-December, seven-day celebration of the winter solstice, the Romans closed their schools, fought no war or battle or punished anyone. Slaves sat down with their masters and were free to say whatever they liked and to drink and gamble, which were ordinarily forbidden. All social classes exchanged gifts, especially candles and clay dolls, the latter mostly given to children. Tree boughs and garlands adorned their homes, temples, and idols, and in processions they carried trees decorated with flaming candles that were symbolic of the sun’s return in spring.

Christians adopted many of those traditions in their own celebration of Christmas over the centuries. By the 18th century at least one English church was so filled with greens that British essayist Sir Richard Steele, in his periodical The Spectator in 1712, wrote that “The middle aisle is a very pretty shady walk, and the pews look like so many arbours on each side of it…”

Evergreen shrubs and trees were symbols of eternal life to many people because they didn’t seem to die during the winter, and legends about their longevity led to the custom of Christmas trees. The Germans were particularly fond of them, and the first documented evidence of Christmas trees surfaced in the notes of an anonymous citizen of Strasburg, France (then part of Germany), in 1605, who wrote, “At Christmas, they set up fir-trees in the parlors…and hang thereon roses cut out of many colored papers, apples, wafers, gold-foil sweets, etc.”

Legend has it that the German Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther, walking home through the forest one Christmas Eve around 1500, was entranced by the sight of stars shining through the trees and, to show his family the beauty of what he had seen, cut down a fir tree, brought it inside, and put lit candles on it to represent the stars over Bethlehem when Jesus was born.

Here in the United States, the first record of a Christmas tree was in the German Moravian Church’s settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1747. Instead of a cut tree, though, it was a wooden pyramid covered with evergreen branches and decorated with candles. At first the custom spread mostly among German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania, but it gradually became fashionable throughout the eastern United States by the middle of the 19th century. In 1851 the first Christmas tree lot was started by Mark Carr, who hauled balsam fir trees from his land in the Catskill Mountains to sell in New York City.

But that same year in Cleveland, Ohio, when Pastor Henry Schwan set a Christmas tree up in his church, many parishioners called it a pagan custom and threatened to attack him. Undeterred by their threats, he thoroughly researched the origins of the Christmas tree, introducing historical written approval by such Christian heavyweights as Pope Gregory I and St. Augustine. The following year his parishioners accepted both Pastor Schwan and his Christmas tree.

By the end of the century, so many American cut Christmas trees that conservationists complained the custom would deplete the forests. President Teddy Roosevelt even banned the White House Christmas tree, which had been a tradition since 1856 when President Franklin Pierce had trimmed one for a group of Washington Sunday School children. Two of Roosevelt’s sons rebelled and secretly smuggled a tree inside while appealing to their father’s friend, Gifford Pinchot, head of the United States Forest Service, for help. Pinchot, a trained forester (and later governor of Pennsylvania) told Roosevelt that careful and selective cutting could actually help the forests so Roosevelt relented.

Today most live Christmas trees are cut on tree farms especially managed for the Christmas tree market. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 46 million American households use artificial trees, 36 million still cut real trees, and 300,000 order live ones over the Internet. Of those who use real trees, 62% buy them from a retail lot and 23% from a tree farm. We have one not far from where we live and, since our Norway spruces are too tall now, go there to pick out a perfectly shaped tree, a process that can take hours of walking and discussing the merits of many trees as we move deeper into the snow-covered groves.

Of the ten favorite Christmas tree species–Fraser fir, Douglas fir, balsam fir, Colorado blue spruce, Scotch pine, eastern red cedar, white spruce, eastern white pine, white or concolor fir, and Virginia pine (in order of popularity)–four are native to Pennsylvania.

The eastern red cedar is traditional in the southern United States but grows in Pennsylvania primarily in the southern counties. A denizen of old fields, it can reach a height of 100 feet or more in the limestone soils of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky. This tree takes on two different shapes. In the North and Midwest the shape is conical and “it is,” Donald Culross Peattie wrote in his A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, “a favorite in old country graveyards, where, to the imagination of our forebears, perhaps, its finger seemed to point to heaven; its evergreen boughs spoke symbolically of life eternal.” But farther south, the eastern red cedar spreads out and takes on a Christmas tree shape.

Virginia pine is another favorite southern Christmas tree and only reaches as far north as central Pennsylvania, Long Island, and New Jersey. It grows in infertile areas, colonizing abandoned fields and the red clay hills of the piedmont. It’s supposed to be the favorite Christmas tree in Virginia probably because it forms pure groves there, as Peattie says, and is the commonest tree on Civil War battlefields–“its somber shapes, its elegiac sighing become fixed in the mind with these mournful places of glory.”

The eastern white pine is the tallest pine east of the Mississippi River and the second tallest in the world grows at Cook Forest State Park. It likes moist settings, such as near our stream, but will grow in drier, mountainous areas among deciduous trees. Because white pine saplings are a favorite food of white-tailed deer, we have none on our property except inside our deer exclosure. But white pines, in favorable settings, grow on average 16 inches a year and quickly gain the conical shape that Christmas tree growers like.

The balsam fir, such as Carr sold in his Christmas tree lot, is a tree mostly of the northern forests. A rarity in wild Pennsylvania, it grows in and along the edges of the cool swamps and bogs in the northern part of the state. Balsam fir twigs, more than other evergreen twigs, resemble crosses, which may be why balsam fir first became a favorite Christmas tree. In addition, the word “balsam,” according to Charles Fergus’s excellent Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, refers “to a Middle Eastern shrub from which myrrh, an ingredient in perfume and incense, is obtained.” Since myrrh was one of the three treasures brought to the Christ child by the Three Wise Men, balsam is an appropriate name for this popular Christmas tree.

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