Little Christmas trees don't have to look like Charlie Brown's tree

The Washington PostDecember 14, 2013 

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300 dpi 1 col. x 2.75 inches/52x70 mm/177x238 pixels Chris Ware color illustration of man in coat and cap with power chainsaw holding up small Christmas tree he has just cut. Lexington Herald-Leader 2000


I like Christmas trees. I like real, cut Christmas trees. I like their piney smell and their blue waxiness and the way they feel in your hand. I like the way you have to look after them for three or four weeks, and I like the way they make the holiday season seem a little special in a world that is fractious and in the thrall of money.

The whole Christmas thing is a balancing act between joyful celebration and excessive consumption, and I would think if you lived in the ersatz palace we call a McMansion, the need to find a tree tall enough to fill the inner void would be vexing. Or maybe not.

Given the contemporary risk of overindulgence, it is hard to imagine a far-off day when even the most modest of celebrations were once banned.

The puritan grip on England was so strong in the middle of the 17th century that it's a wonder the Pilgrims here didn't catch the next Mayflower back. In the old country, Oliver Cromwell replaced an Anglican monarchy with a cold, bloody dose of dourness. I doubt anyone called him "Ollie."

He took all the fun out of being a peasant; his men even ended the popular fairground spectacle of dogs tormenting captive bears. As Lord Macaulay wrote much later, "The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators."

Christmas 1644 was not the jolliest of yuletides. Lawmakers ordered that Dec. 25 "should be strictly observed as a fast," Macaulay wrote, and that everyone must atone for past Christmases when folks were guilty of "romping under the mistletoe, eating boar's head, and drinking ale flavored with roasted apples." All I can say is, thank heaven Cromwell didn't live to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

The Christmas tree is generally viewed as a German invention that caught on in the 1840s, when Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, gathered their family around a resplendent tree. The scene was depicted in the Illustrated London News.

Readers saw a 6-foot fir tree, decked out in ornaments that would be familiar to us today, and the little candles, the wax tapers, that illuminated trees before the age of electricity and string lights.

Even this regal tree was not as splendid as the ones we take for granted today. Our trees, which are farmed in upland fields, develop into handsome, bushy pyramids through summertime trimming. The very finest trees of the Dickensian age were scrawnier, but the more interesting point about Queen Victoria's festive conifer is that it was shown sitting on a table.

Tabletop trees — real and artificial — are as popular as ever. They are smaller, more manageable and cheaper than free-standing ones. These attributes make them the go-to tree for singles in apartments, young couples watching their pennies, empty-nesters, people fleeing the city for the holiday and, in general, people who want to tap into the joy of the Christmas tree without going overboard. I am partial to a 7-foot Fraser fir, reaching for the ceiling, but I see the allure of downsizing.

If you go to a garden center at this time of year, you might see young conifers in red pots that evoke the small Christmas tree. Although festive, they will despise being kept indoors, where it is too warm, too dry and too dark for plants that yearn for winter dormancy. They would like to be on the front stoop or an entrance terrace.

The other problem is that they might not work as a garden plant, if you want to keep them. One common variety, the dwarf Alberta spruce, dislikes heat and humidity and tends to grow ragged from mite infestation. Another, the Colorado blue spruce, can become in size and presence too prominent a landscape feature.

The little rosemary tree will last a couple of weeks in most rooms before the ambient conditions and overwatering will cause it to die. It's a plant for a bright, 50-degree conservatory. Enjoy it as fleeting aromatherapy.

The tabletop tree seems the most virtuous: festive, demure, fragrant and honestly temporary. I wandered into Johnson's Florist and Garden Center in Washington the other day and found 3- to 4-foot Fraser firs for about $30. You still have to treat them as cut trees, placed in a water-holding tree stand, to prevent them from drying, dropping needles and becoming fire hazards.

If that's too much to ask, artificial tabletops are available.

At the Christmas Attic, a year-round yuletide shop in Old Town Alexandria, Va., the popularity of tabletop trees is measured not just in the trees themselves but in the diminutive baubles that they need. Owner Cheri Hennessy sells artificial trees ranging in height from 18 inches to 4 feet. The latter can take full-size decorations, but anything smaller will demand the scaled-down ornament.

The tabletop tree "is fun; it's cute," she said. "Less of an emotional commitment."

Even Oliver Cromwell would approve. Well, perhaps not.

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