SciTech

The evergreen elegant

Every winter, for a period of four weeks, Pittsburgh’s electricity output increases dramatically. The spike isn’t because of a new tech toy being widely used, or even because people typically heat their homes more during this time.

According to Joseph Vallarian, the corporate communications representative from Duquesne Light, it’s because of Christmas lights, many of which will end up being strung on the branches of one of the most iconic symbols of the holiday season: the Christmas tree.

The Christmas tree has been one of the most important symbols in Christian homes, but even today the tree transcends the boundaries of religion. Many people have a Christmas tree simply because of the way it looks.

The Germans call it Weihnachtsbaum and hide a pickle inside of it. The French call it sapin de Noël and originally decorated it with paper flowers and fruit in the 19th century. In any language, the fascination with the Christmas tree isn’t necessarily about the actual tree; it’s about the feelings associated with the season that the tree elicits.

But choosing the correct tree has become somewhat of a science today. Prospective buyers can select trees in any shape and size, and even by authenticity. Meanwhile, shoppers are rarely hard-pressed when trying to find artificial trees; almost every department store and discount store carries a large selection of them.

The debate between artificial and actual ensues: Some feel that artificial trees are more convenient, while others insist that living Christmas trees are the only way to go. Regardless of preference, the affinity many people have for these fixtures has remained constant.

Artificial trees evolve

Early artificial trees didn’t remotely resemble their coniferous counterparts. The trees first appeared in the U.S. near the end of the 19th century when German immigrants brought them over on ships. They were typically constructed with metal wire, and then covered with goose, turkey, ostrich, or swan feathers. In some cases, the feathers were dyed green to imitate pine needles.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that artificial trees began to evolve into what they most commonly look like today. Thanks to the Addis Brush Company, the imitation brush-tree made its way into American homes.

Though sold separately, Addis trees more than likely paired well with the company’s toilet brushes that were also in use at the time, and the trees were actually produced on the same machinery as the scrubbers.

But today, some artificial trees are practically indistinguishable from living trees. Artificial tree technology has greatly improved in the past 70 years, and most production doesn’t occur within the United States anymore. According to the National Christmas Tree Associaion, 85 percent of artificial Christmas tree production now occurs in China. And last year, over 150,000 artificial Christmas trees were imported into the U.S., according to the International Trade Association.

The production is barely meeting demand: In the U.S. alone, over 42 million artificial trees have been bought in the past five years.
“Figures for total artificial tree use are probably higher because artificial trees can be used over many years,” said Ellis Schmidt.

Schmidt, along with his wife Joan and son Erich, has been a full-time Christmas tree farmer outside of Philadelphia for the past 13 years. As a result, Schmidt has worked closely with the National Christmas Tree Association and served on the board of the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association.

Schmidt said that in spite of the popularity of artificial trees, sales numbers for living Christmas trees have recently been growing.
In 2001, approximately 28 million were sold; four years later, almost 33 million were sold.

“Another 33 million are predicted for this year, but we’ll find out for sure after Christmas,” Schmidt said.

Living trees make a return

According to Joan Schmidt, part of the reason for increased sales is because newer homes have higher ceilings.

“There are so many people that still want natural trees,” she said, “and lately, people come in wanting 12- and 14-foot trees.”

Currently, the largest artificial tree offered at Home Depot is only 10'6". Those hoping for a larger tree would have to purchase a living one. And currently, consumers have 11 different types of living trees to choose from.

The largest type of pine tree in the U.S. is the white pine, which has a bluish-green color. Meanwhile, one of the best selling varieties is the Douglas-fir tree, which even the White House purchased this year. And they’re not alone. With the current demand for real Christmas trees, the Schmidts find themselves keeping long hours at the farm, which currently has 25 acres of planted ground.

“We’re working dawn to dark, seven days a week,” said Joan Schmidt.

Many farms in Pennsylvania are sharing a similar experience. Pennsylvania currently has the largest number of Christmas tree farms, totaling over 2000. The state also harvests the fourth-highest amount of living Christmas trees each year, with approximately 1.8 million.

Whether people who celebrate Christmas will most likely get their trees from farmers like the Schmidts or purchase artificial trees at stores is debatable. But if you ask Ellis Schmidt, he’s hopeful.

“We’ve been gaining ground,” Schmidt said.

Official statistics from the National Christmas Tree Association will not be released until after Christmas, but if current trends continue, over 33 million real Christmas trees could end up in American homes.