German Protestant leader Martin Luther created the first illuminated Christmas tree in 1522 – or so the legend goes. Travelling home one winter night, he was enraptured by the starlight that served as a blanket backdrop to the beautiful wintry fir trees of the forest. Having cut the top of a small tree to take home, he was disappointed to lose the twinkly starlight once inside. He therefore lit candles on the tree – and so began a wonderful tradition.
However, there are other theories as to how, where and when the first Christmas tree originated. Some believe the Christmas tree represents the Paradise tree in the Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit…others believe seventh century British missionary St. Boniface is responsible. He worked especially in the regions we now know as Germany. He’s said to have chopped down an oak tree being worshipped by pagans, quickly converted them to Christianity and then planted a fir tree to symbolise God’s eternal love. The converted Christians would return to decorate the tree each Christmas and the tradition duly spread in Bavaria and beyond.
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children helped popularise the Christmas tree in Britain when they were captured standing by one in an etching in an 1848 edition of “Illustrated News”. The Christmas tree arrived in Britain with King George I from his native Germany. He reigned here from 1714 to 1727. His great-great-granddaughter Victoria was just 13 when she wrote in her diary of seeing two tabletop Christmas trees in her uncle’s royal drawing room, so King George’s tradition had clearly continued in royal circles. But without that famous etching of 1848 the Christmas tree might not have taken festive root with the greater public.
The growth in the giving of presents correlates to the rise in popularity of the Christmas tree. Gifts were hung on the tree as well as underneath it. There was also a tradition of the present table where gifts were placed, often unwrapped.
Mrs. C says: Choosing a tree is a big event – one of the biggest of the festive season. The decision you make when buying your tree is one that you will have to live with throughout Christmas.
Ed Elf: So don’t rush into anything. Take your time. Rope in friends and family for second and third opinions. I love giving my opinion, even when it’s not wanted.
Mrs C: Indeed. The first weekend in December, I go to my local farm and – as Ed was so keen to point out – spend a good while selecting my tree. First of all, I look at the overall shape. Is it too wide at the bottom, tapering off towards the top? Or is there a more gradual and pleasing increase in the shape? I then consider how the tree will drop. I gently push the layers to see where the gaps are going to open up when the tree begins to dry out.
Ed Elf: I enjoy it when the netting or twine gets cut from the tree and the branches fall open with a whoosh. Why is it trees always look bigger in the house than on the tree lot?
Mrs C: That’s a good point. He does make them sometimes. Know your maximum height and width measurements. Next, look at the very top of the tree you have your eye on. Is there an even number of branches?
Ed Elf: It could be symmetry doesn’t matter quite so much to you. I’ve had some odd-shaped trees in my time and loved ‘em in spite of that.
Mrs C: Make sure the branches are soft and flexible and that there are few needles shedding. Of course, shedding won’t be a problem if you opt for an artificial tree. I own a fake to go with my fir and have them in separate rooms. I decorate the artificial tree a week earlier than the natural one and it is a most realistic looking beauty. Again, I took time and care picking out the right tree for me. Now you are armed with a few basics, the team at How to Christmas will take you down a tree-lined avenue of options.
Fir Trees…the Real Thing
Research tree varieties and how well each retains needles
Research stockists, their prices and reputation
Select and buy your tree early
Be sure you can easily transport your tree or check it can be delivered
Avoid trees pre-wrapped in netting
Check needles are deep green and waxy, not pale and already coming off in your hand
Know your room measurements and dimensions
Plan the style of tree holder and be certain your tree trunk will fit in it
Put the tree in water outside for a long drink before putting it indoors
Keep it as far away from radiators and other heat sources as possible
Keep it well watered
Do not wait to buy your Christmas tree, thinking the later you leave it the longer it will last. Most live trees are cut at broadly the same time in the fields in autumn (from late October). Selecting your tree early means you have the widest choice available and you can immediately give it the care it deserves. Of course, this does not apply if you are obtaining your tree from a farm where they ‘fell as you buy’.
Picking the right fir tree comes down to patience in the selection process, knowing your measurements, your ideal shape and your needle tolerance threshold. Once chosen, many tree suppliers and garden centres will put the tree into a log base. This means instant tree stability, but you’ll need to place something under the log to avoid staining the carpet or floor. A couple of blocks of wood to make a small platform ensure there’s a good air gap between the log and the floor to allow for moisture to disperse. The block and wooden platform can then be covered with a tree skirt.
If you would rather keep the tree in water, then many retailers stock a range of tree-holders that have reservoirs to enable you to keep your tree watered throughout the Christmas period, including anything from square oak stands for around £15 to decorated heavy cast iron stands for nearer £40. If you intend to have the tree for a good three-to-four weeks over the holiday season, the Krinner Vario tree stands or Cinco tree stands might suit. However, if you keep your tree for a shorter period, then you may wish to avoid the risk of spillage on the floor or carpet and go for a metal tripod holder. There are numerous designs – including some rather marvellous but affordable antique and vintage versions online. There are also simple metal holders in which you can put water to quench the tree’s thirst.
Before purchasing, check the size of any tree-holder is sufficient for the height of the tree and width of the trunk. Your supplier can always help by cutting off lower branches or shape the trunk to fit the base of your choice. It is worth considering at this point if the tree – maybe with the stand/base attached – will fit in your vehicle (or can be tied on it). Otherwise you will have to make sure the supplier delivers door-to-door. If your stand has retaining screws that hold the trunk upright, ensure they are easy to tighten and release. Of course, you could always put your tree in a container like a large plant pot or half barrel and secure them with pebbles, soil, sand, bricks, gravel or stones. We find we can water the container of pebbles and moisture is retained to a perfect degree to keep the tree fragrant and perky throughout the season. Always remember to put the tree in the pot first before pouring in pebbles or stones. This is our chosen method and it works a treat.
Select a tree that is not pre-wrapped in netting. Trees left in netting do not have air circulating around them and begin to form a micro-climate. This means the tree begins to warm up, drop needles and decompose at a much faster rate.
The needles should appear dark green (or deep blue-green), not pale and washed out. They should feel waxy to the touch, not dry. Stroke the tree branches to see if needles fall easily. If they do, don’t buy this tree.
Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmanniana) – This has traditionally been the most popular fir, with its lovely blue-green colour and good retention of needles. The biggest plus: strong branches for hanging decorations.
Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) – We can delight in this green UK native, with its long thick branches, strong pine scent; sturdy branches and decent needle retention.
Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) – The Fraser is growing in popularity and we can see and scent why. This variety has silvery green needles and a unique sweet citrus fragrance that truly lasts the full festive season. These trees are full of thick foliage, with a combination of strong branches to hold heavier decorations and somewhat flimsier branches for lighter baubles and ornaments. There are slender options for smaller spaces, often trimmed into the perfect Christmas tree shape at garden centres and tree farms.
Noble Fir (Abies procera) – And how noble this variety looks, ably living up to its name with its short, soft dark blue-green needles, excellent needle retention and fragrant aroma.
Norway Spruce (Abies picea) – A uniform conical shape, dense foliage and short, bright green needles add up to a pleasing specimen – but likely for a more modest price because this variety will shed more easily. The Norway Spruce is more readily available than the Blue Spruce (Picea Pungens).
Although you will probably be aware of a number of garden centres, farms and shops that sell trees you could always use the website christmastree.org.uk for a list of stockists. If you don’t mind someone else choosing your tree and want to have it delivered and decorated, lights and all, goodelf.co.uk ferry trees anywhere in the UK – both au natural and decorated. A number of garden centres also offer this option, while pinesandneedles.com supplies pre-decorated trees in the London area and The Kilted Christmas Tree Company supplies trees nationally through kiltedchristmastree.co.uk. Croft & Cole offer “Premium Real Christmas Trees Delivered To Your Door”. Its website at croftandcole.com reads: “Picking your Christmas tree is a personal experience, that’s why at Croft & Cole we use our experience to personally pick yours. We have searched through hundreds of acres of Christmas trees from farms across the UK to individually select our…collection.”
Caring for Real Trees
Once purchased, stand the tree in water in a cool environment – in a garage or shed is best if you have one. This gives the tree chance to adjust from being outside to coming into the warm indoors. When you do bring it inside, cut off a couple of centimetres from the trunk just before it goes in its holder – unless, of course, you have already had this done for you at your tree suppliers. This will keep it fresher for longer. As far as possible, keep away from radiators – or turn down the one nearest the tree whenever you can. Keep topping up the holder reservoir with water throughout the festive season. Using a long necked plant watering can makes it easier. Treating your tree with care should ensure that it lasts around a month, with minimal drooping and dropping.
Keeping your thirsty tree happy when it first arrives in the house is key to health and longevity. Big trees need plenty of water and some can soak up a gallon of water in their first few hours in the stand. Make sure your stand’s water reservoir is large enough. The National Christmas Tree Association in the USA recommends a tree stand should provide two pints of water per inch of stem diameter. Ensure the cut part of the trunk stays below the waterline. You may have heard adding Aspirin, lemonade or other ‘magical’ aids to the water will extend the tree’s life. Not in our experience. But such concoctions might make pets or children sick if they drink out of the water reservoir, so stick with good, clean water.
Artificial Trees: A Basic History
Goose feathers dyed green were used in 19th century Germany to create some of the earliest artificial trees. These feather Christmas trees could be as small as two inches high…the tallest almost 50 times bigger. In 1930, the American Addis Brush Company developed the first artificial Christmas tree made from brush bristles as a way of branching out into other areas. Aluminium trees were first manufactured in Chicago, USA in 1958. Most fake trees today are made from recycled plastic. In recent years there have been various artificial tree trends such as fibre optic tree, pre-lit twig trees and even upside down trees.
Artificial trees have really blossomed, as it were, over recent years and you can now purchase a wide range: from the most realistic-looking ones with snowy topping…to pre-lit trees for people sick of untangling lights…to bizarre upside down trees…to those with a contemporary look in a whole rainbow of colours and collage of textures.
Although a good quality fake tree may seem a little expensive initially, when the cost is balanced out over a number of years it does become cost-effective. You may prefer an artificial tree for a number of reasons – other than ones of economy. There’s no mess for a start. They are uniformly strong with even branch distribution for ease of decoration, especially when hanging heavier baubles and ornaments. It is also easier to have a contemporary design as trees are available in a wide range of colours.
Of course, the fake firs won’t have that lovely pine fragrance of a real tree. But if you opt for a natural looking artificial tree, you can always place a pine-scented reed diffuser nearby for effect. Remember that artificial Christmas trees will need to be stored somewhere for the other eleven months of the year. Various retailers sell Christmas tree storage bags from around £10.
Decide on the look – are you going for a realistic looking tree or do you want something bright and contemporary? Consider the space that you have for the tree. Choose one that appeals to you size-wise but won’t overwhelm the room. An advantage of artificial trees is they can be slimmer than their real cousins, so more easily fit into corners. If you are buying a tree with artificial snow or a glittery finish, the embellishment needs to be well applied otherwise you may find it will shed.
Look carefully at the construction of the demonstration tree in the shop. Check how easy it will be to assemble? Most artificial trees with clip-in branches should take around 15 minutes to fully assemble. But we have canvassed a number of people on this issue and discovered the reality is more like 45 minutes to an hour, even with the assistance of colour coding. Newer ‘pop-up’ style trees should assemble in less than four minutes.
If buying a pre-lit tree, always make sure you see it switched on. Also consider that the top half of the tree and the bottom half of the tree may have separate strings of lights. A few people we polled said half of their pre-lit trees went ‘dark’ and they couldn’t get the lights working again. If you are not buying a pre-lit tree, consider carefully the number of lights you will need to amply cover your artificial purchase and how much they’ll cost. You can find out more about indoor lights by clicking here.
balsamhill.co.uk – Use of True Needle foliage makes for stunning authenticity. Trees are hand crafted and come with 10-year foliage warranty. The selection is vast.
thewhitecompany.com – From the smaller trees in zinc pots to full size trees with cleverly produced needles, few artificial trees look more realistic than the ones supplied by The White Company.
snowsupermarket.co.uk – You can buy display snow for on or around your tree. The product is a realistic artificial movie snow used in film and TV productions. Developed for visual merchandising, it is also perfect for home decoration.
Don’t like needles dropping in your room and yet not keen on artificial trees either? The compromise may be to create a twig tree, fake or natural.
The natural choice can be constructed from any number of types of tree branch and can be retained as a contemporary decoration for the rest of the year. You can use a twig tree to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, St. George’s Day and pretty much any patriotic or celebratory event you wish. We like the fact that you can start with a twig tree a few weeks before putting up the main Christmas tree, safe in the knowledge that it’s not going to drop. You can add subtle wintry decorations without being overtly Christmassy and add a festive sparkle to your room with a string of lights, generally getting the festive feel flowing.
Our favourite twig tree was made from the branches of a twisted willow, although we have made a metre-high tree from the slightly thicker branches of an ash tree to make a twiggy Advent calendar, which you can read more about in our Advent Calendars section. Overall you need to consider:
How tall you want the tree to be
How wide the tree can be
The type of decorations you will hang on the tree
If the branches have sufficient access points to hang decorations
If you’re cutting branches from a tree or large shrub in the garden, allow time for them to dry out slightly. Brush them lightly to rid them of surface debris and trim them if necessary. Paint them or leave them as nature intended.
The type of container for a twig tree depends on the height of the branches and their diameter at the base. A ceramic umbrella stand worked well for our willow tree. The branches went deep enough into the container to give instant stability. Any suitable festive paper, soft fabric or florist’s moss can be used to complete the top of the container. If you need additional support, large stones should do the trick. For our afore-mentioned Advent calendar twig tree we chose a plastic container filled with plaster and covered that with hessian.
The height, weight and number of branches on the twig will determine the material you choose for your container. Glass always works well for smaller arrangements. The container can be filled with baubles, pinecones or other festive decorations. Zinc and metal containers add dull gleam yet depth to the arrangement, while small wooden planters can also be used to good effect. The main point is to ensure that whatever you choose it’s stable and secure. A good, solid base is crucial.
We now have our twig tree ready for decorating. Whatever style or colour you use, the principles of tree decorating still apply (visit our Decorating Trees page in the Christmas Decorations section for further advice). If you’re using lights then place them on the tree first. Twig trees look better when lights follow the branches rather than drape across branches. If you need to secure your lights then either fine florist’s wire, unfurled paper clips or flexible ornament hooks can be used to loosely secure the lights. Hang your heaviest decorations first on the strongest branches. Lighter decorations can dangle wherever needed to balance the overall effect.
Another tree increasing in popularity is the artificial twig tree, often manufactured pre-lit and available from desktop size to more than two metres in height. Like other artificial trees, these are easy to fold away and store and provide solid branches from which to hang decorations. Try christmastimeuk.com for trees in various sizes and colours. They can be brought out early in the festive season to give the suggestion of the impending celebrations – and perhaps even be kept out all year. See Phasing In Christmas Decor for more on pre-Christmas decorating.
Look out also for trees made from interlocked layers of driftwood. They can serve as the main Christmas tree in a small, confined space or as a tabletop decoration in bigger spaces. Perfect in a rustic or Nordic room setting, they can sometimes come complete with pegs on which to hang baubles and lights. We have found examples online ranging from just a few pounds for a miniature version to nearer £60 for a taller model. Visit naturalcreationswales.co.uk. There’s a stunning range from around £100 for a 3ft tree to around £500 for a 7ft tree designed by Karen Miller, who turned a stroll down a Devon beach into a creative passion and thriving business. Look for ‘Doris by Karen Miller’ on the website dorisbrixham.co.uk. Also check out notonthehighstreet.com. Other online stockists offer driftwood trees layered in an overlapping, roof-tile style that do not require additional ornamentation from £25.
Wall Trees – Simply Hanging Around
When space is at a premium, an effective option can be a Christmas tree hung on a wall. The supplier Christmas Direct sells artificial wall-mounted half Christmas trees that may work well in a restricted space or hallway, although there are several other options.
To attach your tree shape to the wall without the need to redecorate afterwards you can use temporary fixings such as Blu-tac, drawing pins, small panel pins or 3m Command Strips and Hooks. As for the choice of wall tree itself, let your imagination run wild. There are so many options available to you. Using slender tree branches is a simple way to start. Smaller pieces of wood at the top increase in size layer by layer towards the bottom until the triangular tree shape is achieved. Lightweight decorations can be fixed to each wooden layer. Smaller, flatter decorations tend to work better as they will hang vertically rather than at an angle to the wall. We suggest laying out the branches on the floor or table before you start fixing the pieces to the wall so you can create the best arrangement. You could try a string tree, where hooks are placed on the wall in a triangular formation and string is wrapped from hook to hook. Black twine and silver stars work well together in this minimalist arrangement. This can also be made on a rectangle of wood, using nails instead of hooks. There are rope ladder versions and we have even seen a wall tree made from layers of multi-coloured Post-it notes. Check out our How to Christmas board on pinterest.com. Here, you can see some tremendously creative uses of Christmas lights, old picture frames and driftwood.
Trees of Fame
Rockerfeller Center Tree
One of the most glorious sights at Christmastime anywhere in the world is the giant illuminated tree at Rockerfeller Center in New York. The annual tradition officially began in 1933 – the year 30 Rockerfeller Plaza opened. But a tree was erected there two years earlier during the depression-era construction of the Center, shortly after the site was cleared. It was Christmas Eve 1931 when workers decorated a more modest 20ft balsam fir with paper garlands, strings of cranberries, tin cans and even the tin foil ends of blasting caps. It was largely a symbol of thanks for their good fortune: that they had work in a time of great unemployment and poverty. The type of tree used predominantly through the decades is a Norway spruce, usually between 69-100ft tall. The Swarovski star that tops the tree has been used since 2004 and was created by German artist Michael Hammers.
Trafalgar Square Tree
London’s most magnificent Christmas tree stands proudly in one of the capital’s most famous areas – often one of celebratory congregation. Each year, the country of Norway makes a present of the giant tree, just as it has since 1947. The first Trafalgar Square Christmas tree donated by Norway was brought over in ’47 as a thank you for Britain’s help and friendship during World War II. Ever since, the giant Norwegian spruce has been given annually to the City of Westminster by the City of Oslo. After German invasion in April 1940, the Norwegian monarch and government moved to London for the duration of the war. The illumination of the tree traditionally takes place in early December.
The London Look
The magnificent Trafalgar Square tree, donated annually by Norway, is not the only Christmas tree of stature, significance and splendour in the English capital each year. London also boasts the following:
Towering Tree at St. Pancras – travellers moving through London’s St. Pancras International will again look on in wonder this year at a spectacular tree towering above the main station concourse. Previous designs include the Cirque du Soleil tree. It featured projections of performances from the show “Amaluna” and glittering peacock feathers that lit up each time a donation was made to Oxfam. St. Pancras has showcased such impressive trees as the 2018 Tiffany tree with its own perfume shop at the base, the 2015 structure made from 2,000 Disney Store soft toys and the 2011 Lego tree made from 600,000 bricks.
Claridge’s Class – step into the luxurious Mayfair hotel Claridge’s to witness the celebrated Christmas tree installation. Afternoon tea in the Claridge’s Foyer and Reading Room is a festive treat you will not want to miss either. This is the tenth year Claridge’s has enlisted designer expertise to wow hotel guests and tourists with a tree that is a long-established part of the festive season in the English capital.
Southbank Centre Sparkle – there are magical lines of twinkling trees dotted along the South Bank to cheer passers-by and offer a welcome to visitors to the centre’s Winter Market each and every year. Organisers predict the Southbank Centre Winter Festival will be bigger and better than ever this Christmas, running from early November to early January.