Forest products and holiday tree-ditions

Trees are a focus of seasonal and holiday events

An illustration of the Cecil County Holly Tree, also known as the Jackson Holly, The B&O Railroad Holly, and The Travelers Tree. The original tree was severely damaged by ice but living offshoots are still decorated and celebrated annually on the first Saturday of December.| Illustration by Aaron Sopher

Local apples have already been picked from their trees and made into apple butter. Walnuts have been gathered for processing and later use in baked goods. Wise locals who picked blueberries at the end of summer may have set aside some to freeze for winter pancakes and muffins. This time of year, rather than for sustenance or warmth, those decorative and symbolic products of the forest become the focus or woodland harvesting. Pines and other conifers, magnolia, hollies and mistletoe are all still harvested in Maryland for festive seasonal and holiday decorations. People who enjoy these activities and traditions, however, may not realize the origin and significance of this reconnection with the forests in winter.

A chickadee on a branch of frozen berries.| Photo by Steve Gettle, National Wildlife Federation

This year’s annual tree-lighting event at APG was an example of a tree-centered gathering that remains an important event for ushering in the winter and holiday season.

In nearby Cecil County, locals still celebrate the annual B&O/Cecil County Holly Tree Lighting Ceremony of a holly tree that was mostly destroyed by a 1995 ice storm and subsequent fungal infection. The tree is still immortalized by a star-topped iron pole of the same height. The pole is surrounded by off-shoot “baby” hollies of the original that grow taller every year and are now able to hold lights and ornaments on their own.

Thought to be planted by a local man around 1870, the original central trunk was first decorated by the B&O, which owned the land, in 1947 and gained national fame throughout the 1950s and 60s. The tree is along the old B&O Railroad line – now owned by CSX Railroad – which was a major passenger route between Washington, D.C. and New York City. For many years thousands of holiday travelers viewed the tree, which came to be known as the Traveler’s Christmas Tree.

In 1972, ownership was transferred to Cecil County and now it is designated as “Holly Tree Park” and decorated annually by volunteers. Local school bands, singers, fire and rescue personnel, and Santa Claus lead one or two main holiday events there each year.

Celebrating evergreens in winter

In spite of a predicted shortage of Christmas trees this year, due to droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, and the lack of planting during the recession, many retailers have found enough local or Canadian sources to meet demand.

Consumers can also harvest trees at local farms where they can pay to cut your own at a lower price to experience the tradition of selecting and cutting the tree as a family. Though may Americans opt for artificial trees, either way, a tree of some kind is considered an essential component of many holiday and seasonal celebrations. Estimates given for the combined number of natural and artificial Christmas trees displayed in the U.S. top 80 million and the total amount spent on natural and artificial trees annually approaches $2 billion.

Forests and individual trees have always been celebrated around the world. In the U.S., tree traditions have been combined with other cultures. Many of our current holiday “tree-ditions” are relatively recent and yet derive at least in part from ancient customs.

Romans may not have been the first to display evergreen wreaths and sprays during winter celebrations but historians recorded that they did so for their Saturnalia holiday festivals in December. Some historians believe customs from these festivals, which included greens, lighted candles, and gift-giving were perhaps adapted by Roman subjects that converted to Christianity along with their emperor Constantine. Early Americans such as the Puritans generally did not celebrate Christmas with these customs that were considered pagan in origin.

Germany is generally cited as the earliest country to cut down and display fir trees for Christmas celebrations in the 16th century. By the 19th century Germany was producing artificial trees, of goose feathers dyed green, to combat deforestation.

Christmas trees didn’t become widely popular in the U.S. until the second half of the 19th Century. The publishing of a print of Queen Victoria and her family celebrating around a tree in 1848 is credited by some as having a large influence on increasing the use of trees in private homes in America at Christmas.

The first known Christmas tree market, in New York City in 1851, was so successful at selling fir and spruce trees that were cut from the wild in the Catskill Mountains, that selling the trees soon became a December tradition in many cities. The cutting of wild-grown evergreens had to be banned in some areas to prevent deforestation. Dedicated Christmas tree farms came about many years later.

Mistletoe is not actually a tree but is a partially parasitic plant growing in the tops of trees, conducting its own photosynthesis but drawing nutrients from the tree. The common species in Maryland most commonly grows in oaks and is best seen in winter as an evergreen plant in the tops of deciduous trees. Because of the height at which it often grows, it is sometimes harvested with shotguns in rural areas.

The Greeks, Romans, Norse, and Celtic Druids all used or celebrated the powers of mistletoe for medicinal purposes and later for its association with winter fertility and romance. More recently, researchers in Europe have explored its potential in treating colon cancer. Kissing under the mistletoe goes back to at least the early 1800s in the U.S.

In times of war

During the Revolutionary War era, Christmas was not celebrated with cut evergreen trees. Many historians believe the first Christmas trees in the U.S. were set up by German Hessian mercenary soldiers employed by the British, and later by German immigrants in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

By the Civil War in the 1860s, there were more reports of Christmas trees being cut or sold in the U.S. for holiday decorations. Thomas Nast, the famous illustrator of that era became a war correspondent and drew battle scenes. He also drew Santa Claus, evergreens and other Christmas symbols with soldiers. He was reportedly encouraged by President Abraham Lincoln to solidify Christmas traditions as a unifier for the divided nation.

By the 1870s, Christmas ornaments for trees were being imported from Germany.

Christmas trees, real or improvised from any vegetation or materials available, have been set up by American soldiers during every war since then.

Allied and German soldiers fighting in the trenches of World War I paused for a Christmas truce in 1914. During World War II, there was a manpower, railroad capacity, and thus Christmas tree, shortage in the U.S. so many Americans switched to artificial trees. Christmas trees continued to be set up by Soldiers in World War II, the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars, and Afghanistan conflicts.

Currently, “Trees for Troops,” part of the non-profit Christmas Spirit Foundation, raises funds and provides trees to military families and troops in the U.S. and overseas. Its website provides information about how to help, and how to request Christmas trees. “Wreaths Across America” is a non-profit organization, not that honors the sacrifice of all veterans by coordinating the placement of wreaths at military cemeteries in every state and abroad. At Arlington National Cemetery, thousands of volunteers place wreaths in December and then remove them in January.

Forest products on DOD land

The lands of APG include many of the beautiful evergreens featured in holiday traditions including pines, magnolia, mistletoe, and holly. However, all of this vegetation is the property of the U.S. Army and removal for any purpose is governed by federal statutes, Department of Defense and Army regulations and local policies.

Like wildflowers growing on the post in summer, it is best to simply enjoy the evergreens as they grow, and brighten the dark winter landscape, and serve the wildlife as well as the Army. Cuttings from Christmas trees and other evergreens are generally available for purchase on tree farms, Christmas tree sale lots, or at local nurseries or florists.

During the holidays, be sure to keep cut or live trees watered to maintain moisture longer and to minimize fire hazards. Dispose of trees and other cut evergreens properly after the holidays. Check with waste haulers or the county for disposal options.

For those in APG housing, trees for pick-up and disposal must be curbside by 5 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 13. In Harford County, residents can drop off trees at Harford Waste Disposal Center in Street, Monday through Saturday, or the Tollgate Road Site in Bel Air, Saturdays only. Simply dumping Christmas trees in the woods could add to wildland fire fuel load and is not recommended.

APG natural resources managers have a long history of continually coordinating the natural infrastructure stewardship that supports and sustains the Army’s testing and training mission every day. Working with partners from APG tenant organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, APG DPW personnel developed and coordinated the Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMP) as a roadmap for a sustainable mission landscape that is created through proactive management of APG’s natural resources.


By John Leader, APG DPW, Natural Resources Team