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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: A closer look at NC’s most generous gift-giver … the Christmas tree

“Ah, Frank Zappa!” Jock nodded approvingly at the Christmas tree my mother had anchored to the wall with dental floss. It was his first visit to my parents’ home for the holidays, and his engineer’s brain immediately zeroed in on the physics problem that dominated December for us annually: how to keep the tree upright.

THANKFUL FOR TREES: Gwenyfar ruminates on the life of a Christmas tree and what it means for NC economy.  Courtesy photo, NC Christmas Tree Association.

THANKFUL FOR TREES: Gwenyfar ruminates on the life of a Christmas tree and what it means for NC economy. Courtesy photo, NC Christmas Tree Association.

“The strongest stuff on Earth! Cheers!” My mother grinned and held her drink aloft to toast the merits of dental floss. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without it.”

When we moved into the house on Market Street, my mother decided, since she now had a grand living room, she wanted a Christmas tree worthy of the space. And I swear she bought the biggest tree I had ever seen the first year. To this day I don’t know how we got it home strapped to the top of a two-door Toyota. However, this tree was not going to stay upright in a tree stand. Up until then my family dealt with trees that by comparison would be considered saplings. The gigantic tree of course fell over—perfectly flat, just like someone yelled “timber!”

It was a long afternoon, but by the end of it, the tree was upright. My mother solved the physics problem by anchoring it to the wall with dental floss and the assistance of two less-than-helpful family members. So began a holiday tradition essential to the tree and our family.      

Though I saw families in movies and on TV shows who would go harvest their own Christmas tree, it never occurred to me this was an option in North Carolina. Didn’t Christmas trees come from the North Pole with all the other Christmas stuff?

Well, Hurricane Hugo changed that perception. In the post-storm coverage on the news, one reporter visited Christmas tree farms in North Carolina that had been devastated by the storm.  Trees don’t grow in one season—this was years of work and investment gone overnight. As a small business owner (and armchair aspiring farmer), I started mulling over the actual time investment necessary to harvest and sell Christmas Trees in NC. Well, according to the NC Christmas Tree Association (NCCTA), the process can easily take 12 to 14 years per tree. The first three years the seedlings spend in a nursery then they are moved to “line out beds” where all the trees are approximately the same size and age. According to the website (

“The seedlings will stay in the line-out bed for two years or until they are strong enough to be transplanted into the field.  During the seven to eight years the trees remain in the field, the grower, or Christmas tree farmer, will spend time and effort in shaping them. After the trees reach a height of three feet, they are sheared for the first time.”

Sheared? I read this with visions of sheep-shaped trees getting round up for an annual trim: the local sheering agent rubbing the tree’s belly to keep it calm and making soothing noises while a large handheld razor trims the needles.

Not quite.

In the land of Christmas trees, sheering is the shaping process. Farmers cut  the top of the tree to make it grow bushier lower branches and trim it into the classic shape of the Christmas tree known and reviled on sweaters everywhere.

The history of the Christmas tree in America can be traced to Hessian mercenaries during the Revolution—or to the popularization of the Christmas tree during Queen Victoria’s reign and the illustration of her and Prince Albert with a tree that appeared in Godey’s “Lady’s Book.” For my generation, I have to think “A Charlie Brown Christmas” did the most to solidify the place of the tree, what it should look like and how we should respond to it. 

There is part of me that remains baffled by Americans’ relationship with trees in general. We spend all year slaughtering them because they litter sidewalks with leaves, provide shade and oxygen, as if they made a mistake in choosing a place to call home for 20 years where someone wants to build another mall or apartment complex. Then, for one month only, we bring them into our homes decorate them with garlands, ribbons and lights and treat them like royalty. A month later the same tree is discarded when it is no longer needed or pretty.


North Carolina has struggled with the loss of agriculture in the last 20 years. However, we still have nearly 40,000 acres of land in Christmas-tree production—and we produce almost one-fifth of the Christmas trees for the United States! According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are almost 350,000 acres producing Christmas trees in the United States. They further assert that 100,000 people find full- or part-time employment nationally in the industry.

Just for a point of contrast, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, in the first eight months of 2005 $69 million in artificial Christmas trees entered the United States from China. One of the arguments (a good one) for artificial trees is we pay for it once and have it forever.

My mother, who really made the magic of Christmas happen, was adamant that “nothing is quite as wonderful and special as a real tree.” But I think, much like Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree,” I didn’t quite understand the extent of the gift of the Christmas tree. It is a cycle of growth and giving of great depth: Land kept as greenspace that would otherwise disappear is cultivated for Christmas-tree farming. Mountain farmers with land that would be difficult to use for other crop production can set out a stand of trees, making the land productive (and profitable), and reduce erosion at the same time.

Once there was a tree….

and she loved a little boy.

And everyday the boy would come

and he would gather her leaves

and make them into crowns

and play king of the forest. 

—Shel Silverstein, “Giving Tree”

As the trees grow, they produce oxygen for us to breathe, and create jobs in tending and management, leading to eventual harvest, wherein more people find jobs selling them during the holiday season. For close to a month, the trees bring boundless joy and delight to families (and some cats who really believe a tree has come inside as a gift for them!). At the end of the season, decorations get packed up for another year and trees come down.

Now begins the next part of their lives. Some become garden mulch. Others are collected to combat beach erosion. Still, others are enjoyed yet again in bon fires (the ash can then be used as fertilizer). From beginning to end, the gifts are almost limitless.  All we do is take and enjoy.

North Carolina has had a rough year. The continuing ramifications in the loss of the film industry, the economic fallout of HB2, Hurricane Matthew, and the list goes on. But the holidays are here to bring cheer, and standing in a corner of the living room is one of the most generous gift-givers of all. Most of the roadside Christmas-tree sellers have signs up identifying where their trees came from—but make a little extra effort this year and ask if the tree is from NC. We need greenspace, mountain preservation, family farms, and an employed workforce now more than ever before.

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