A Living Christmas
Published in the Toronto Star – December 16, 2017
What is the first thought that comes to mind when you think of Christmas? For many of us, it is the smell. Temporal lobes are one of largest portions of our brain and they are devoted to smell and taste.
This is a good reason to preserve the memories of the Christmas season with a fresh cut or live Christmas tree.
Canadians are split about 50/50 on artificial and real Christmas trees. We won’t try to convince you to go ‘real’ if you are already committed to a fake tree. It just seems to us a bit of a contradiction: we have been celebrating this occasion for about 2,000 years and many of us will continue to celebrate it for years to come. Whether you observe the religious connections or not, Christmas for most Canadians has a special place in our calendar and our hearts. So, how is a plastic (or some other synthetic) tree appropriate for an evergreen celebration?
The rest of this article is for those who want to bring some authenticity to the event. Let’s begin with live trees.
Real Christmas Trees.
Potted or cut? Every year we receive many email messages from curious Canadians who think it would be grand if they bought a nice spruce or pine in a pot, one with roots, and place it in the living room.
The idea has merit, but limitations. First, it has roots because it is living. It needs an extended period of cold to prepare itself to produce new growth in the spring. This period in the life of all winter-hardy trees is called vernalisation or dormancy. And your living evergreen needs it to stay alive.
When you bring a potted tree indoors and expose it to heat (any temperature above freezing) for an extended period, you risk killing it. Room temperatures in a normal living area will trick your tree into thinking that spring has arrived. It will become ‘soft’ and may start to grow. When you put it out of doors after Christmas, it will literally freeze to death as the poor thing will be thinking ‘spring’ when in fact the depth of winter is still ahead of it.
Bringing a potted, live tree into your home is only successful if you discipline yourself to enjoy the tree indoors for a maximum of five days. Consider placing it on your condo balcony or backyard deck to enjoy through a window or sliding door.
Make sure that you keep the roots and soil moist or you will be asking for more trouble.
When you do place it out of doors after enjoying it indoors, either plant it in soil, which can be tricky in most parts of frozen Canada. Or cover the roots (pot or burlap) with two or three bales of straw to insulate it from the fluxuating temperatures during the winter. Keep it watered.
You probable have figured out that ‘moisture’ is a theme here.
Cut Christmas tree.
Most of us will bring a cut evergreen tree indoors for Christmas. This is a clever idea but note that not all of them hold moisture (and their needles) to the same extent. Here is a list of tree species, starting with the most needle-retentive species down to the least:
Fraser Fir, balsam fir, white pine, Scots pine and spruce. While the earliest evergreens used as Christmas trees in Germany were likely spruce, they were not brought indoors for extended periods of time. They used real candles to ‘light’ the tree too. In hindsight, this was not a good idea. You can only imagine how many of those Christmas celebrations ended poorly. Stick with the low voltage lights sold today and, above all, place your tree in a sturdy stand that holds at least 4 litres of water. Hydration is the key to needle retention and reducing fire hazards.
One more tip: Spray your fresh cut tree with Wilt-Pruf to prevent desiccation. Apologies for the spelling, this is an American product and, like donuts, we can’t always expect them to spell things the Canadian or ‘correct’ way. Fact is, it is the best product on the market for this purpose. It is sold in a ready-to-use bottle. If you have any left over, apply it to your garden yews, boxwood, euonymus, holly and rhododendrons, on a day when temperatures are above freezing. It holds moisture in the foliage like magic.
Keep your cut Christmas tree away from heat sources including the fireplace and heating vents.
We use as much of the real, evergreen stuff around our home at Christmas as we can: the scent helps to keep the magic in the occasion.