On Christmas morning 1902, young brothers Quentin and Archie Roosevelt revealed a holiday surprise to their parents. As the first family entered the White House room where they were to open their gifts, the boys threw open a set of closet doors to reveal a small decorated Christmas tree.
The tree had been cut from the White House grounds and with a little assistance from staff had been wired for electric lights. The trouble was that President Theodore Roosevelt had specifically banned White House Christmas trees the previous year.
A dedicated outdoorsman and environmentalist, Roosevelt had listened to the increasing public concern over unnecessary forest destruction and come to the decision that his family would not participate in the holiday tradition.
Now, please believe me when I say that I am not a Christmas tree hater. I recognize that for many of the folks out there who celebrate Christmas, the season just simply would not be the same without a freshly cut tree. But I don’t have a real tree in my home.
Primarily this is because I have a family member who is terribly allergic to evergreen, but I also appreciate that artificial trees don’t need to be watered, rarely burst into flame, and possess bendy branches that are quite convenient for whimsical ornament placement. Best of all, when Christmas is over, I don’t have to worry about how to dispose of my tree.
At least I thought that was an advantage, until I moved to Oregon, which produces more live Christmas trees than any other state in the United States. Sometime during the week following our first Oregonian Christmas, a young lady knocked on our door and explained that her glee club, chess team, cheerleading squad, or something was raising funds by recycling Christmas trees for people. When I told her that we had an artificial tree, the perky smile slid from her face.
She recovered quickly, the ends of her mouth turning up, a look of disbelief in her shining eyes as she shifted to try to see around me into my home. The “tree” was easy to spot in the front room.
“Oh, okay. Thanks anyway.” She turned to walk back down the driveway, her shoulders sagging, as if I had just explained how I’d accidentally run over her puppy.
But now we’re back in the Midwest where real trees cost nearly as much as the artificial ones and no one seems to take it as a personal affront that we prefer unpacking our tree from a box in the basement to strapping it to the roof of our car.
Still, my time in the Pacific Northwest has given me a new perspective on the advantages of real Christmas trees:
1. Real evergreen trees make your house smell lovely and if anyone is allergic to them, his or her airway will soon clog enough to not smell them anyway so everyone wins.
2. Real trees introduce a new crop of spiders into your home that soon take up residence and can become beloved pets for your children.
3. Real trees spread their needles over the floor to be tracked all over the place, giving your entire home a fresh green Christmas-y feel.
4. Real trees produce plenty of sap to coat your family’s treasured ornaments and protect them from potential breakage.
5. When a young lady shows up on your doorstep offering to recycle your Christmas tree as a fundraiser for the annual honors orchestra trip to Boise, you don’t have to inform her that you have just run over her puppy.
And it turns out the Roosevelt family discovered a new perspective on their live Christmas tree, too. According to the story, the president was not particularly angry with his young sons, but decided that this was a teachable moment. He invited his friend and adviser Gifford Pinchot who would later serve as Chief of the United States Forest Service to explain to the boys the problems of deforestation and the use of trees for decorative purposes. Instead, Pinchot told them that sometimes the selective harvesting of older trees could be beneficial to a forest.
There’s no record of trees being reincorporated into the Roosevelt Christmas celebrations in the White House, but many reforestation laws and environmental acts came out of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Today, most of the Christmas trees in the United States are farm raised with highly sustainable farming practices.
So go ahead all you holiday traditionalists out there. Gather with your family around your real Christmas tree and sing Dr. Seuss’s “Welcome Christmas” or whatever it is you do to celebrate. I will be with my family, passing out the gifts left under our perfectly shaped, green plastic Christmas “tree” complete with occasional clusters of small fake pine cones. In a few days, I will pull off the branches and stuff them back into the box in the basement. And I promise I will try not to run over your puppy.