Magazine article American Forests

The Gift That Changed Christmas

Magazine article American Forests

The Gift That Changed Christmas

Article excerpt

A 1924 campaign inaugurated by American forests spawned a new custom-and a new industry.

On Christmas Eve 1924, President and Mrs. Coolidge accepted a gift from AMERICAN FORESTS that would forever change the way Americans celebrate the holidays.

That gift, accepted on behalf of the citizens of the country, was a magnificent 40-year-old, 35-foot Norway spruce, and it became the first living symbol of Christmas for the entire nation--the National Community Christmas Tree. The lighting ceremony for the tree, which came from the Amawalk Nursery in New York, was held near the Treasury Building.

The event--which included more than a thousand people singing Christmas carols, a brass quartet, and a concert by the U.S. Marine Band--was intended as more than just a holiday celebration. As with all AMERICAN FORESTS' initiatives and programs, it was designed to draw public attention to a conservation concern.

Although Christmas trees were a holiday tradition at that time, there was no Christmas tree industry. Trees were cut in the wild, sometimes illegally, and always with little consideration for the continuance of the forest. There was no replanting, no trees left standing for reseeding, and areas devoid of pines were left unsightly and environmentally devastated.

The gift of a living National Christmas Tree was AMERICAN FORESTS' way of inaugurating a campaign urging the use of living Christmas trees as a conservation measure, "in harmony with the early significance of the Christmas tree--the sign of endless life, for its leaves are evergreen," one author wrote in American Forests' January 1925 issue. For years, AMERICAN FORESTS encouraged the commercial growing of Christmas trees with articles in our magazine on growing techniques, scientific advances, and profiles of growers. It was a two-pronged attack on the dangers of wanton cutting of Christmas trees: encourage both the use of live trees and the development of an industry that grows Christmas trees.

On one side stood the danger of damage to our precious forest ecosystems; on the other, the danger of losing a beautiful tradition of having Christmas trees in our homes. At the turn of the century, misled conservationists would have had us forego the joys of a Christmas tree.

"These efforts in behalf of forest conservation are unfortunately misdirected," Edmond Secrest said in a 1925 article in American Forests. "Instead of being aimed at the use of the Christmas tree, they should be directed against the unregulated and destructive methods by which the wild trees are harvested."

Even the most prominent conservationist of the day fell prey to misguided activists. President Theodore Roosevelt declared there would be no White House Christmas tree at the turn of the century. His sons Archie and Quentin smuggled a tree up the back stairs of the White House, hid it in their closet, then appealed to Gifford Pinchot, a close friend of Roosevelt's, to intercede on their behalf. Pinchot convinced Roosevelt that growing and harvesting Christmas trees could be done right. Roosevelt relented.

The story of how Christmas trees came to be is a fascinating one, with its roots in pagan practices. Plants that stay green throughout the year have always been symbols of the triumph of life over death. It's no surprise, then, that evergreen trees filled this bill nicely. …

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