Pining for the Good Old Days

Children around the globe will be disappointed on Christmas if the World Health Organization doesn’t exempt Santa from COVID-19 restrictions. But I’m sure they will. Due to the pandemic, many authorities advise that we celebrate in our respective households this year; no visitors. Yikes! Looks like we’ll have to rely on past memories for the holidays in 2020, which is bad news for those of us who can’t keep track of our car keys for two minutes.

Fortunately, the most enduring memories are those associated with smell. For Santa, a whiff of reindeer dung probably brings the spirit of the season into focus, but the winter holidays have plenty of sweeter scents – maybe a fresh-baked pie, or a roast turkey – to remind us of Christmases past. For me, though, nothing evokes the holiday spirit like the smell of fresh-cut pine, spruce or fir. Those fragrant evergreen wreaths, trees and garlands help us remember.

Though most American households which observe Christmas now use artificial trees, last time I checked, around eleven million families still bring home a real tree. Every conifer species has a unique combination of terpenols and esters that account for its “piney woods” perfume. A natural Christmas tree is, among other things, a giant holiday potpourri. No chemistry lab can make a plastic-and-wire tree smell like a fresh evergreen.

Evergreen trees and boughs were used by many ancient peoples to symbolize eternal life. Martin Luther apparently helped kindle (so to speak) the custom of indoor home Christmas trees in sixteenth-century Germany by bringing an evergreen into his house and decorating it with candles. For centuries, Christmas trees were brought inside on December 24th and were not removed until after the Christian feast of Epiphany on January 6th.

In terms of regional favorites, Douglas, balsam, and Fraser firs are popular aromatic evergreens with superior needle retention. Pines also hang onto their needles well. Scots (not Scotch; that’s for Santa) pine outsells our native white pine, possibly because the sturdy Scots can bear lots of decorations without its branches drooping. But white pine has a deeper fragrance, so take your pick. Not only do spruces have stout branches, they have a strongly pyramidal shape, and their short needles make them easy to decorate.

The annual pilgrimage to choose a tree is for many families a cherished holiday tradition, a time to bond. I look back fondly on our customary thermos of hot chocolate, the ritual of the kids losing at least one mitten each, and the time-honored squabble – I mean discussion – regarding which tree is best. Good smells and good memories.

One of the pandemic’s side effects seems to be more interest in natural Christmas trees, and I’m told that in some places they can be in short supply. Nonetheless, I encourage everyone to consider a natural tree. They are a renewable resource, and boost the regional economy as well. Tree farmers as well as local vendors are happy to help you select the best kind of tree for your family’s preferences.   

For maximum fragrance and needle retention, cut a one- to two-inch “cookie” from the base of the trunk before placing your tree in the stand, and fill the reservoir every two days. Research shows that products claiming to extend needle life really don’t work, so save your money. LED tree lights don’t dry out the needles like the old style did, and are easier on your electric bill too. Find more information on how to select and care for your Christmas tree here.

Even if you can’t get together as in years past, I hope your family, friends, and evergreens are all well-hydrated, sweet-scented and a source of good memories this holiday season.

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