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Tradition grew business of Christmas tree farms

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Keith Barnes, right, is shown with his brother, Tracy, in front of their Christmas tree.
Keith Barnes, right, is shown with his brother, Tracy, in front of their Christmas tree.
Contributed photo

Among my best childhood memories was the distinct smell given off by a live Christmas tree that permeated our house each year during the holiday season.

We always had a live tree during those years and to this day I still love the pleasant pine/cedar/spruce/fir scent.

I recall whenever we got the tree into the house and placed it in the stand — usually in early December — the smell took over and remained there until after New Year’s Day when the tree was finally taken down.

Further, I always thought our trees were beautiful and perfectly formed until I came across some old snapshots in recent years that showed just how misshapen and hideous they were, almost like the one depicted in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the 1965 cartoon TV special.

According to Wikipedia, the custom of having trees as part of the Christmas celebration probably originated during the Renaissance of early modern Germany during the 16th century.

The Christmas tree did not become common in the United States until the early 1800s.

In those early years, tree decorations were mostly of the handmade or natural variety and candles provided the illumination.

Candles were ultimately replaced by Christmas lights after the advent of electrification.

Also in those earlier years, Christmas trees were often harvested from wild forests. Now almost all are commercially grown on tree farms.

The first Christmas tree farm in the United States was in 1901 near Trenton, New Jersey, with 25,000 Norway Spruce trees being planted. The trees were sold seven years later for $1 each.

While some farmers may have tried their hand at Christmas tree farms during the early 1900s, most live trees harvested in America up until the 1950s still came from natural forests.

Christmas trees have gradually become big business for growers both nationwide and in North Carolina. The main tree-producing areas are Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and the Pacific Northwest.

In 1998, there were about 15,000 Christmas tree growers nationwide, including many choose-and-cut farms.

By 2002, Christmas tree production in the United States totaled 20.8 million trees. Some 2.9 million of those trees were harvested in North Carolina, second behind only Oregon in terms of trees cut.

By 2004, the crop in North Carolina was worth more than $100 million.

Estimates show that between 33 million and 36 million Christmas trees are now produced annually in America.

Christmas trees have not only played prominent roles in many movies over the years but have often been glorified to the point of taking the role of a major character. “Christmas Vacation” (1989) starring Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold is a good example.

In the opening segment, the Griswolds go looking for the perfect Christmas tree and arrive at a snow-covered hillside where Clark spots about a 30-foot-tall tree he thinks will fit in their living room.

Things go downhill from there with the tree eventually catching fire and burning to a crisp.

The Christmas tree serves an important function in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), during a scene near the end when the George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) family is standing by the tree singing carols and a bell on the tree rings.

“Look, daddy,” said daughter, Zuzu, “Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

In “A Christmas Story” (1983), a funny moment of the movie occurs when Ralphie’s dad bargains with the tree lot salesman and finally agrees on the price of $2 for a tree.

The Christmas tree in 1945’s “Christmas in Connecticut” starring Barbara Stanwick is probably the most ornately decorated tree that ever appeared in any movie.

On “The Andy Griffith Show” Christmas story episode from 1960, Sheriff Andy and Deputy Barney Fife give a Christmas party in the jail for a prisoner and his family. The Christmas tree they decorated for the occasion was a sickly effort, but it served its purpose and reminded me once again of the pitiful-looking trees of my childhood.

Songs with “Christmas tree” in the title include “Oh Christmas Tree,” recorded by numerous artists, and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee from 1964.

Probably the best-known Christmas tree in the nation is the one placed annually in Rockefeller Center in New York’s midtown Manhattan and lit in a public ceremony usually in early December with thousands of lights. Since 1997, the lighting has been broadcast live to millions of TV viewers.

The Rockefeller Center tree, usually a Norway spruce 69 feet to 100 feet tall, has been a national tradition each year since 1933. The first tree was actually installed two years earlier when construction workers decorated a smaller 20-foot-tall tree.

The 1933 tree was 50 feet tall, requiring scaffolds to decorate it and including electric lights for the first time.

The tallest Rockefeller Center tree came in 1999 with a 100-foot-tall spruce from Killingworth, Connecticut.

Keith Barnes is a reporter and columnist for the Johnstonian News. Email him at