by Maria Reidelbach
It’s one of my earliest memories—trudging among evergreens, the forest quieted by a thick layer of snow, gradually turning from white to blue in the twilight. Little arms and legs stiff, from the cold or layers of clothing, I couldn’t tell. I was out with my family to get a Christmas tree, just a few days before the holiday, and the world seemed full of magic.
A view of Bell’s Christmas Trees in Accord. Photo by Dave
I still love Christmas trees; I think it might be something in my genes. The custom of bringing winter greenery indoors is older than time, dating way back before the advent of Christianity. It seems that when the days are too short and the world too cold, folks have always gotten the heebie-jeebies. The ancients lived surrounded by nature, and in the winter their eyes must have ached for the greenery of the warmer months. Plants that stayed verdant throughout the winter were thought to have special properties—and they do! Botanists say that evergreen needles are actually leaves that are rolled up very tightly and coated with a waxy substance to seal moisture in. This allows them to photosynthesize most of the year, which is especially helpful in cold northern climates.
Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Celts, and Vikings all marked the winter solstice with evergreens. Ironically, Christians in colonial America forbade any celebration of Christmas other than church services, sometimes by law (this was before the separation of church and state). Even into the 19th century mainstream Christians perceived the trees that German immigrants decorated to be a dangerous heathen ritual. In 1846, Queen Victoria, who in her day was a world style-setter on the order of the Kardashians, and whose husband Prince Albert was German, brought a Christmas tree into the palace. When an illustration of the tree and family was published in the London Times the custom went viral both in England and the United States.
In the 21st century, we’ve banished winter cold and dark, and perhaps as a consequence, our innate craving for evergreen has become confused—artificial trees are common, and there have been fads for white trees, silver trees, and other novelties. For a while there was controversy over whether it was better for the environment to have an artificial tree or cut a real tree down, but most conservationists are now solidly supporting natural trees. They point out that almost all artificial trees are made in China out of polyvinyl chloride, which contains toxins; using polluting, coal-generated electricity; delivered half-way around the world in diesel-powered ships; used for an average of five years; and then, because they are not recyclable, discarded into a landfill.
On the other hand, natural trees are a renewable, recyclable resource. They grow in soil not ideal for food crops, and they don’t need irrigation. All the years a tree is growing it’s cleaning the air; purifying groundwater; stabilizing the soil; providing homes for wildlife and sometimes, to the consternation of tree farmers, dinners for deer. Steve Lobotsky of Wonderland Farm in Rhinebeck said that Fraser firs are popular with people and with deer—he has many “lollypop” Frasers—the bottom six feet of trunk are stripped of branches, but there’s a beautiful tree above that.
Live trees are better for people too. Tree farms support the local economy—they employ lots of workers out in the fresh air, seasonally and year-round. And there are even scientific studies that show that having live greenery indoors is good for our health. Dr. Birgitta Gatersleben, an environmental psychologist at the University of Surrey, says that there’s “plenty of evidence” that real Christmas trees reduce stress, increase well being and satisfaction with life. And they smell so wonderfully woodsy—close your eyes and you are transported to a snowy glen.
A view of Bell’s Christmas Trees in Accord. Photo by Dave
There are lots of ways to reuse a real tree after the holidays. The whole tree, stand and all, can be moved outside and decorated with bird feeders. The needles, branches, or chipped wood from trees can be used as mulch and planting bed protection. Cut the trunk in slices to use for plant stands. Cut them thin and push them into soil vertically to edge garden borders, or sand varnish them to use for trivets and coasters—the possibilities are endless.
If you’re lucky enough to have trees on your land, or have friends who do, you can forage a fresh tree. Spruces, firs, pines, and cedars all grow wild in the Hudson Valley and are easily cut with a bow saw. Because they haven’t been cosseted like cultivated trees are, a wild tree might be lopsided or so open you can see the whole trunk. I like this type of tree because they have character, you can see all of the ornaments at once—and they have fewer needles to clean up, but I realize the Charlie Brown look isn’t for everyone. You can grow your own full, well-shaped tree if you have six to ten years to prune and tend it. Or you can visit one of our area’s picturesque Christmas tree farms and support our agriculture community.
An outing to a local tree farm is a great holiday activity to share with loved ones, be they family or friends. Most farms not only help you cut your own tree if you like, but they also offer more seasonal fun—a barn with a warm wood stove, hot chocolate, evergreen wreaths and ropes, locally made gifts, and great natural or concocted photo ops for that festive holiday selfie. Bell’s Christmas Trees in Accord will have Mitten Trees decorated with colorful mittens, scarves, and hats donated by the community and later passed on to families in need. Hardenberg Farm in Ulster Park has a popular 1945 Ford pickup truck named Hardy that people travel to pose in. All have beautiful plantings of trees to stroll among—it’s fun to bring winter picnic.
Christmas tree farming is a tricky business—it takes years to grow a tree and farms have but one month to sell it. If the holiday weather is inclement, it severely impacts their business. I’ve asked some of these committed farmers what keeps them going and every one of them echoed what I heard from Gordie Bell, “We love to create a fun experience for folks, and I feel even better knowing that growing trees is great for the environment.” That kind of love and enthusiasm—that’s what I call the holiday spirit.
Locally grown trees (check websites for details):
Abel’s Trees (Verbank): abelstrees.com, 845-677-6395
Barthel’s Farm, Ellenville (fresh cut), 846-647-6941
Battenfeld’s Christmas Tree Farm (Red Hook): christmastreefarm.us, 845-758-8018 (also amazing anemone greenhouses)
Bell’s Christmas Trees (Accord): bellschristmastrees.com, 845-626-7849 (Mitten Tree clothing drive 11/27 to 12/18)
Bilmar Nurseries (Pleasant Valley): bilmarnurseriesinc.com, 845-635-3206
Evergreen Christmas Tree Farm (Millbrook): christmastreefarm.biz, 845-677-3785
Hardenburgh Farm (Ulster Park): hardenburghfarm.com, 845-658-8894 (Hardy the vintage pickup)
Primrose Hill Farm (Staatsburg): primrosehillfarm.com, 845-889-4725
Solvang Tree Farm (Poughkeepsie): solvangfarm.com, 845-473-0224
Wonderland Farm (Rhinebeck): wonderlandfarm.com, 845-876-6760