The Last Gift of Christmas

A Christmas tree has adorned the White House practically every year in American history. As far as we know, there have been just four years that the White House didn’t have a tree, and Teddy Roosevelt is responsible for three out of the four. They say that the nature-loving president saw deforestation happening in the name of the tradition and refused to get behind it.

These days our Christmas trees come from farms, not from wild forests. From time to time, somebody who’s thinking along the same lines as T.R. will say that they like to reuse an artificial tree  instead of cutting down and killing live trees year after year. But all things considered, nowadays a live Christmas tree is more environmentally friendly than an artificial one by a long shot. An artificial tree is usually used for about 10 years. Once it’s discarded, its plastic branches will shine unscathed in a landfill for a hundreds of years to come. Your live tree will decompose naturally, and it’s doing good for the earth long before you’re cutting it down. Trees take 7-10 years to grow to marketable size, and they spend their lives putting out oxygen into our atmosphere and soaking up carbon through the soil that surrounds them. They improve the landscape for wildlife, too–your Christmas tree might’ve been home to birds who spent their summer at the farm. The demand for live Christmas trees increases the number of trees planted. Every year in the United States, 100 million Christmas tree seedlings are planted and 40 million are cut in winter. 

It’s hard work to grow marketable trees successfully. Farmers spend a lot of time carefully trimming the trees to get that ideal cone shape. In spring and summer, common pests like wasps and worms have to be removed. On a pesticide-free farm, this means picking off bugs and fungi by hand. The changing climate is making farmers’ job even harder. Dry conditions are bad for tree growth because evergreens need a lot of water to thrive, and some farms’ crops have suffered. Pea Ridge Forest, located in Hermann, Missouri, is a popular destination for St. Louis families who want to choose and cut their tree on-site at a farm. At Pea Ridge, the dry summers and mild winters of recent years have made it increasingly difficult to grow successful crops of Christmas trees. This year, the farm bolstered their own crop with trees shipped from Michigan and the Carolinas.

In colder climates like those, it’s much easier to grow fir trees. Growing firs here in Missouri takes lots of extra water, sometimes even the installation of irrigation systems. It’s much easier to grow pine trees here, so the Scotch pine in particular is a popular choice for Missouri farmers and their customers. Pine trees are the most resistant to warmth and dryness, which also means they’ll hold their needles the longest after they’re cut. Our homes are way too hot and dry for an evergreen’s liking, so it’s good to take this into consideration when you’re thinking about what kind of tree you want and how long you want to have it displayed. Firs will hold their needles second-longest after the pines, and the spruces come in last.

Inevitably every year comes the twinge of sadness when you must take down the Christmas decorations, and the tree along with them. Most of our decorations are packed away safely for the next year. It’s only our live Christmas trees to which we must say a permanent goodbye. But while the ornaments and ceramic Santa Claus sleep packed away and useless til next winter, the Christmas tree makes itself useful in a new way. It can be turned to mulch for next year’s garden. It can be burned as firewood. If you want to provide winter shelter for birds and rabbits, you can lay it down in your backyard and leave the strings of popcorn for them to eat. You can also donate your tree to be recycled by one of the city parks. 

Even if you don’t make practical use of your tree, the last Christmas gift you give each year is to return a real tree to the earth from which you cut it. No matter where the tree ends up, it will rot away and give back to the earth the gift of the nutrients it borrowed while it was living. And this period of decomposing and giving back will last long past its fleeting moment of glory in your bright front window.

Unpredictable December

December is a month that reminds us that we can’t anticipate everything. This year it began with snow, ice, and a bitter cold that’s faded now into rain, fog, and a mild chill more reminiscent of fall than winter. Comforting as it is to enjoy the warmer days or stay cozied up inside, everybody’s bound to be caught by surprise sometime this winter. Early this month, a spit of unforecasted sleet caused a midday exodus from the Missouri Botanical Garden. A woman ran for her car with her child so stiffly bundled in a puffy pink coat that she bounced helplessly on her mother’s shoulders. A middle-aged man hunched headfirst into the wind. He plowed on forward, slow and steady, looking not surprised by the weather, but personally offended. A group of brightly-dressed third-graders marched in a long, trailing line behind their steadfast teacher. She walked with calm posture and her head held high, a quiet “don’t-you-dare” as she led them back towards the school nearby. The children, bouncing and laughing, seemed hardly to notice the spitting sleet.

Winters in St. Louis are like this: unpredictable. The average amount of snowfall in December is 4.4 inches, but that number doesn’t reflect the wide range of each year on record. It isn’t unusual to get less than an inch of snow in December, nor is it unusual to get close to eight inches. And the average low temperature doesn’t usually get too cold until January, but anyone who’s lived here awhile knows that there’s plenty chance of a plummet at any moment. Missouri’s climate is notorious for being all over the place, and so many things besides the cold can make for a fiercer winter: the bitter wind racing between the buildings downtown and creaking the old, tired trees; sharp little sleet pellets biting at the face; the dry winter air cracking the fingers and palms of a people so used to sauna-like summers. And yet, a week out, many of us are checking the forecast and crossing our fingers for a cold, snowy Christmas Eve.

Maybe that’s why the old, familiar traditions of the holidays feel so comforting and warm. In the face of the cold outside and the uncertainty of an upcoming new year, we treasure this holiday for which our oldest friends and closest family members will gather together and do those things which we have always done. That’s why a warm Christmas Day in St. Louis always feels unsavory even to those who hate the cold the most—even if it’s just for a day each year, we want to feel that there is a supernatural warmth that comes from sharing gifts and customs with the people we care about in spite of the harshness of the world outside. As for whether we’ll get a cold and snowy Christmas this year, there’s not much to do but wait and see.

Holiday Guests

Each year, those plants that are too loved to be lost to winter are tenderly collected from the backyard or balcony and brought indoors. They congregate in our window sills or among the mugs left out on the kitchen table, and on cold, grey days we welcome their company. Come December we invite a couple of holiday guests to our growing indoor winter garden.

The bright red poinsettia is one of these visitors, and it’s a strange one to have received this honor. In the United States, the poinsettia is so closely associated with Christmas and wintertime that its own natural habitat seems to us like a mismatch. Poinsettias come from Mexico and need to be treated like the tropical plants they are. They prefer a hot, wet environment, so they should be kept away from drafty windows and misted regularly. It’s a lot of trouble to make the bracts turn red like that, and that task is usually left to the experts. But anyone who’s got patience and a willingness to fail can have a crack at getting this year’s plants to redden again next Christmas.

It’s a complicated process: After the season’s over, the leaves will fall. When that happens, cut the stems down to just a few inches high and keep the plant pretty dry and out of the sun. In early May, freshen up the compost and put the plant in a new pot. After repotting, water thoroughly and regularly whenever the soil starts to feel dry. When new shoots appear, choose the four or five strongest and remove the rest so they don’t have to compete for space. Now the poinsettias will grow, but they’ll only turn red again if you carefully manipulate the light. The last week of September is game time. The plant must be kept in complete darkness for 14 hours each day. To make that happen, you have to cover the poinsettia with a dark plastic bag from early evening til morning every day for eight weeks. Then treat it like normal again. If all goes well, your poinsettias will be red again in time for Christmas.

Since the early 1900s, one family has dominated the poinsettia industry by mastering the plant’s complicated cultivation. The Ecke family developed a way to grow a bushier, more attractive plant and kept their technique top secret for for decades. In the 1980s, a graduate student named  John Dole cracked the code and published his findings. They finally had some competition after that, but to this day they rule the poinsettia industry. The Eckes are also responsible for the popularization of the poinsettia as a Christmas plant in the United States. They began referring to it as “the Christmas flower” and went to great lengths to send them to popular magazines and television shows to be featured during the holidays. Paul Ecke Jr. was so determined to have the plants featured in women’s magazines that when they told him that their holiday photoshoots took place months ahead of time, Ecke Jr. specially cultivated a new group of poinsettias that would bloom out-of-season in summertime.

If you’re one of the people that brings these living decorations into your home each year, you don’t have to be bothered by the absurdly early Christmas displays pushing into your peripherals from the moment Halloween is over. The live poinsettias will only blush red for this brief season, so when they start to pop up in the grocery store, and the fir trees are riding around town on the roofs of the family cars, those who take them in know that Christmastime has truly arrived.