As December begins and Christmas draws closer, Christmas trees have started to pop up all around Mint Hill.
Though the Christmas tree is largely seen as a Christian tradition, “evergreen” plants have held special significance to people across the globe since long before the advent of Christianity. Ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows in order to keep away evil forces like witches, ghosts and illnesses. Evergreen plants were also used in celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, which usually falls on December 21 or 22.
Many ancient people saw the sun as a god, and they believed that winter came because the sun god had become sick or weak. The winter solstice was a time for celebration because the gradually lengthening daylight after its passing meant the sun god was beginning to get well. Evergreen plants reminded these people of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god became strong and summer came.
The Christmas tree tradition we know today began in Germany in the early 16th century. Many people believe that Martin Luther was the first to add lighted candles to a Christmas tree after being awed by the beauty of stars twinkling amongst evergreen trees on his nightly walk home.
Christmas trees took longer to catch on in the United States. Though there are some records of trees being displayed by Pennsylvania’s German settlers as early as 1747, most early American settlers saw the Christmas tree as a pagan symbol. In many Puritan New England communities, Christmas was seen as a strictly sacred religious observance; all “heathen” and “pagan” traditions, such as Christmas carols and decorations, were discouraged and even punished by law! It wasn’t until America saw more German and Irish immigrants in the 19th century that Americans began to adopt some of the more joyous Christmas traditions we know today.
In 1846, the Christmas tree took on new popularity when Queen Victoria was sketched in the Illustrated London News standing around a Christmas tree with her family. Because of Queen Victoria’s own popularity, the Christmas tree immediately became fashionable not only in Great Britain but also with fashion-conscious East Coast Americans.
By the 1890s, tall Christmas trees that reached from floor to ceiling had become quite popular in North America. Twentieth century Americans decorated their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, whereas German-Americans continued the German tradition of using apples, nuts and marzipan cookies. Chains of dyed popcorn interlaced with berries and nuts were also popular as garlands. The advent of electricity, enabling Christmas trees in homes and town squares to glow endlessly, was critical in cementing the Christmas tree as an American tradition.
Today, Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. 77 million Christmas trees are planted each year; generally, they take 6-8 years to mature. The best selling varieties of evergreen are Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir and White Pine. The Christmas tree industry is a big business that employs over 100,000 people every year.
Christmas trees are a big business in North Carolina where approximately 1300 growers produce Fraser Fir trees in the far Western counties of North Carolina. North Carolina’s Christmas tree industry is ranked second in the nation in terms of number of trees harvested and profits. North Carolina produces over 19% of the real Christmas trees in the United States, and North Carolina’s Fraser Fir has been chosen as the official White House Christmas tree 12 times, more than any other evergreen species.
Today, a “real live” Christmas tree holds a special place in many people’s hearts. “I get a live tree and I put it up and decorate it on the first day of Advent,” says Mint Hill resident Leanne Thurman. “I love the smell of them.” “I grew up with a real tree every year that stayed up till mid to end of January when it would finally die,” says local Barbie Tallent.
Many people even enjoy making a journey to cut down their own live trees. “We get a real tree every year and drive up to the mountains to cut our own,” says mom-to-three Tucker Campbell. Local mom Ellee Wallace concurs: “Real tree. Always. We try to go cut it ourselves, but with kids, that gets hard.”
Even those who don’t cut down their own tree have a special brand of loyalty to their tree lots. “We always get a live tree from the high school baseball team,” says high school teacher Angela Struve, who has maintained the tradition for eleven years. “We used to go every year to the same guy in Indian Trail,” says Queen’s Grant teacher Jordan Frederick. “He was a retired firefighter with a tree farm up in the mountains, and we would meet up with our friends and pick out our trees together.” Carmel Christian Middle School Principal Leslie Southerland has a pre-lit fake tree in her home due to allergies, but says, “My boys love the tree lot on Lebanon at 51 because of the giant inflatable Santa!”
Ornaments that hold special significance are an important part of trimming the tree for many families. “All of our ornaments are special,” says Tucker Campbell. “Either the kids made them, they are the ones that Don and I made as kids, some from each of our parent’s trees, and one from his grandparent’s tree, too!” “We also collect ornaments from special trips or events,” she continues. “My mom kept a book of ornament details – the year, where or who they were from, etc. So, I’ve taken that tradition as well.”
“We also buy an ornament from our vacation spots,” says Christie Matos-French, mom to two-year-old Bianca. “I made one for Bianca for her first Christmas and I have given her empty plastic baubles last year and this year that she can put her favorite things into. Last years has a sea shell and two chocolate wrappers from her first trip to the Dominican Republic.” Mint Hill Resident and Middle School Teacher Kourtney Sinclair has unique ornaments from every year of her life. “My parents had a tradition of giving us an ornament every Christmas that had something to do with what happened in our lives that year. For example, the year we moved to Arizona, the first year we had a dog, the year I began piano lessons, and many, many others.” she says. Many people carry on a similar tradition with their children. Mom Mary McDonough says, “I give the kids a new ornament each year. Last year I got them an ‘ornament box’ . . . so they will each have their own box to unpack each year as we trim the tree.”
For some people, the method of putting the decorations on the tree holds as much significance as the ornaments themselves. “The angel at the top always goes on last,” says Leanne Thurman. “Certain people have to put certain ornaments on and almost each one has a story which is retold over and over,” says teacher Melissa Jackson. “I have a particular method of stringing it with lights and wooden beads that my mom taught me,” says Kourtney Sinclair.
Sometimes the music playing while the decorations go up is an important part of the ritual. “We always listen to John Denver and the Muppets,” says Tucker Campbell, who recalls it as a favorite from childhood for both her and her husband. “Manheim Steamroller, for me, is the music of Christmas,” says Leanne Thurman. “I grew up listening to all of their albums, not just Christmas, but we went to their Christmas concerts several times. It’s hands down my favorite Christmas music.”
And, of course, there are those off-the-wall quirky traditions that make the holiday special and fun. Many people mentioned the “holiday pickle” – the person who finds the pickle ornament hidden in the tree on Christmas morning is the first one to open a present. Though Carolyn Price prefers a real tree, “We have a super tacky, fake white sparkly one for backup.” “I do love a classy Christmas tree,” she continues, “but when we go fake, we honestly have more fun improvising how ridiculous to make it!”