In search of an authentic Christmas, ax required

Why We Wrote This

Many millennials are cutting down their own trees as part of a yearning for a more meaningful Christmas – enjoying an outdoor experience with family – rather than making the holiday all about gift-buying.

Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
Luke Richardson (left) and his brother Brady help cut down their family’s Christmas tree at a farm in Hillsburgh, Ontario.

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It looks like a scene out of a vintage Christmas print. Yet not all is old-fashioned on this 98-acre expanse in rural Ontario. Amid the bonhomie at Elliott Tree Farm, millennials are putting a modern twist on the ancient ritual of cutting down conifers.

Frederico Marques says environmental concerns brought him out. “To avoid the plastic,” he says, saw in hand.

People have been cutting down Christmas trees since trees first became a part of Christmas, but now something new is happening – millennials are helping to buoy tree farms across North America. Driven by a new ethos, they are wielding axes and bow saws in the name of making sustainable choices and supporting “go local” movements. They are also willing to pay for experience over convenience.

“[Millennials] have had a lot of bad rap, right? But when you see what they are doing, they don’t care about brands,” says Derek Elliott, whose family bought this land in the 1980s when it was a potato farm. “They are driven by the experience of a real tree, by bringing nature into the home, by supporting sustainability and not just putting up a plastic tree assembled in China.”

Something about being in nature feels right to Mr. Marques.

His wife, Brigite Rais, agrees. But the overarching motivation for being out here in the chill winter air goes back to that centuries-old quest for the “real” Christmas experience.

“Leading up to Christmas, we try to do something different each week,” she says. That includes dedicating a weekend to cooking Portuguese holiday sweets. “Otherwise, it passes, and that’s it. It’s just gifts,” says Ms. Rais. “And that’s not really the meaning of Christmas.”

Parents pull their children on bright red sleds through the Christmas tree grove, amid rolling hills of Nordic and blue spruce and white pine. Saws grind. Trees fall.

Back at a barn that dates to 1850, strings of white lights hang from the beams. Families sip hot chocolate topped with crushed candy canes and whipped cream as they gather in circles on hay bales. Outside, two little girls feed a bonfire with pine twigs.

It looks like a scene out of a vintage Christmas print. Yet not all is old-fashioned on this 98-acre expanse in rural Ontario. Amid the bonhomie at Elliott Tree Farm, millennials like Justin Davies are putting a decidedly modern twist on the ancient ritual of cutting their own conifers. The heavy-machinery mechanic is planning on decorating his tree, which he chose for its height and fullness, with parts from his dirt bike.

Then there is Brooke de Oliveira, with her new husband and Yorkie poodle dressed in a red coat, who says that for her it’s all about the experience, which will include posting the “final product” on Instagram. And Frederico Marques says environmental concerns brought him out this year, after having put up an artificial tree last year. “To avoid the plastic,” he says, saw in hand.

People have been cutting down Christmas trees since trees first became a part of Christmas, but now something new is happening. Growers say that, along with the multigenerational families that have long been a mainstay of their customer base, millennials are helping to buoy tree farms across North America. Driven by a new ethos, they are wielding their own axes and bow saws in the name of making sustainable choices and supporting “go local” movements. They are also willing to pay for experience over convenience – especially if it means they can post their venture online. 

“[Millennials] have had a lot of bad rap, right? But when you see what they are doing, they don’t care about brands or what you are supposed to do or not supposed to do,” says Derek Elliott, whose family bought this land in the 1980s when it was a potato farm. “They are driven by the experience of a real tree, by bringing nature into the home, by supporting sustainability and not just putting up a plastic tree assembled in China.”

Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
Derek Elliott, decked out in Yuletide attire, runs the 98-acre Elliott Tree Farm in rural Ontario (photo left). His family started selling Christmas trees five years ago, on land that used to be a potato farm.

Millennials, defined as the generation born between 1981 and 1996, have been mocked and blamed (mostly by baby boomers) for everything from their finicky diets to a sense of entitlement to an obsession with technology. Christmas is no different. Last year, when a Twitter hashtag #millennialchristmastraditions was created, the derision came swiftly. “Vegan cookies for Santa,” cracked one writer. “Tracking Santa’s Uber route,” said another. “Downloading the Christmas tree via Apple TV,” mocked a third.

But as it turns out, at least with that last jab, millennials are decidedly low-tech when it comes to selecting a Christmas tree.

“Millennials want to know the story of what they are purchasing. They want to know who made it, who grew it; that is part of their culture and who they are,” says Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, a U.S.-based trade group for tree farms. “They spend a lot of time and money doing things as opposed to acquiring things.”

In other words, millennials represent the ideal market – and growers are pitching them aggressively.

North Americans love Christmas trees. A new poll by SurveyMonkey for the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) found that 82% of respondents believe the Christmas tree is their most important holiday symbol. But that love hasn’t necessarily trickled down to the farm.

In one poll carried out by Nielsen in 2017 for ACTA, which supports manufacturers of artificial trees, 81% of trees displayed in American households that year were man-made.

Partly that’s a generational shift. Even Mr. Elliott’s mother, Betty Elliott, admits to having an artificial tree most of her adult life. “After I got married, everybody was getting the artificial,” she says. “When Derek was a kid,” she says, pointing to her son wearing a red hat and red festive holiday sweater, as “Let It Snow!” pipes through the barn, “he was raised with the artificial. But they say the [millennials] want this, you know. They want this experience.” 

In fact, growers thank them for driving business. Sales of real trees have experienced a significant uptick in the United States, according to the National Christmas Tree Association: Some 32.8 million were sold in 2018 – up from 27.4 million the year before. Of those, 28% were bought at cut-your-own farms that often do much more than simply sell spruce and balsam fir. Many offer “agritainment,” such as wagon rides, horse-drawn sleighs, food trucks, and petting zoos.   

In Canada, sales of real trees have increased by about 20% since 2015, going from $53 million (Canadian; U.S.$39 million) to $77 million (U.S.$57 million) last year, according to Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association. “We have seen a steady increase in sales, and we’ve seen a steady increase in our demand,” she says. “There are a lot of farms that will sell out their crop for the season.”

Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
A couple search for the perfect tree to harvest in Hillsburgh, Ontario.

That’s in part because of demand from the U.S., where Christmas tree shortages are being reported in some states. The dearth stems not just from more people wanting trees but from the recession a decade ago. Since growers planted fewer trees during the downturn, and it takes about 10 years for a Christmas tree to mature, the effects are being felt now. That means higher prices. In the U.S. they jumped 23% between 2015 and 2018. The higher prices and tight supplies could lead some consumers back to the artificial market.

Kristin Pyke won’t be one of them. Her husband, Eric Kanis, grew up with an artificial tree. But like many millennials who are getting married and starting families, they have created a shared tradition around choosing a real tree. “It’s a big deal to me,” says Ms. Pyke, who sees a tree as both the centerpiece of her open-concept home and her Christmas season. 

The two go back and forth on various fresh-cut balsam firs that, to the untrained eye, all look equally perfect.

“I must admit [a real tree] is better, to get the smell, and you have to water it, take care of it every day,” says Mr. Kanis.

“A little more magical?” Ms. Pyke asks him. 

“I love Christmas,” she continues. “It’s like when you’re a kid; it brings back those nostalgic moments.”

The longing for a more authentic Christmas traces back to the beginnings of holiday celebrations in North America. Like so many traditions, Christmas trees have their origins in midwinter festivities to mark the solstice, and brighten the darkness, in ancient societies of northern Europe. Part of those celebrations included using evergreens and plants to decorate homes.

The modern iteration started in 16th-century Germany, where people brought trees into homes and adorned them with gingerbread and nuts. Christmas customs, including using greenery, were originally rejected in the U.S. because they were seen as pagan rituals. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that such traditions made their way into U.S. homes.

But just as soon as the decorating began, the holiday became commercialized, according to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of “The Battle for Christmas.” The modern image of a benevolent, chimney-hopping Santa was popularized in 1822 with the publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” more commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” 

Mr. Nissenbaum says that the Christmas tree, seen as a simple German tradition, evoked deep feelings about what Christmas ought to be. It clashed with the rise of a more materialistic holiday rooted in gift-giving. 

“By the early 1930s, Santa Claus had become associated with a commercial Christmas, and the Christmas tree was introduced as a kind of anti-commercial antidote to Santa Claus,” he says. “That search for authenticity in the face of a kind of artificial materialism that has taken over Christmas, that goes back to the very earliest days.” Mr. Nissenbaum is not surprised that millennials today are seeking it, too. 

Of course, the appeal of Christmas tree farms in 2019 among millennials isn’t exactly your Victorian Christmas. A lot of it is tied to the social media frenzy. Christine Thomas, who runs Thomas Tree Farm with her husband outside Ottawa, Ontario, says they are used to multigenerational families. “But last year, we found more young people without kids were coming. Don’t know if that’s because they all want their Instagram photos,” she says.

Just like fields of sunflowers and lavender have become popular backdrops for online photos, so have tree farms become the “perfect” setting for young people to chronicle themselves, she says. In fact, she had to put a reminder on their webpage asking photographers to contact them first if they want to use their farm as a setting for holiday photos.

Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
Brigite Rais and Frederico Marques of Toronto take a selfie after cutting down a Christmas tree at Elliott Tree Farm in Hillsburgh, On- tario. This was the first time they harvested their own tree, after years of using an artificial one.

Emily Cordonier, a mommy blogger who did a post on the “Ultimate Guide to Getting Your Real Christmas Tree,” says the experience itself should come first – but it’s undeniably picture-perfect. “Looking through and choosing a tree, and hemming and hawing and then getting to physically cut it down, is pretty awesome,” she says. “And, I mean, I’m not going to lie. Thinking of millennials, in the era of Instagram, going out to tree farms and cutting your own down, is a lot more photo-ready sort of memory than going to a lot, choosing one that’s already wrapped up, and bringing it home.” 

For some millennials, it’s not about looks or likes on social media. It’s about following their instincts in the age of climate change. Yet the question of which option is greener, a real tree or an artificial one, has turned into one of the more contentious fronts in the perennial Christmas wars.

Christmas tree growers conjure images of faceless corporations manufacturing plastic trees that then languish in landfills. Those on the artificial side emphasize the reusability of the same tree, year after year, instead of cutting down a natural resource. In reality, the answer to which one is less harmful to the planet comes down to “the assumptions you want to make,” says Bert Cregg, an expert on Christmas tree production at Michigan State University in East Lansing. It depends on how long a household keeps an artificial tree or how many miles a family drives to cut down a fresh one. 

“Usually the tipping point on the environmental impact of real versus artificial trees is how far you go to get your tree,” he says.

Still, something about being in nature feels right to Mr. Marques, who is trekking through Elliott Tree Farm with his wife, Brigite Rais. It’s the first time they are cutting down a tree, and the first time since moving to Canada three years ago from Portugal that they won’t be putting up an artificial one.

“This is more sustainable,” says Mr. Marques. “You plant the trees, cut them down, and make a cycle like this. This is natural. It is organic.” 

Ms. Rais agrees. But the overarching motivation for being out here in the chill winter air goes back to that centuries-old quest for the “real” Christmas experience.

The two pause in front of a spruce – not their first time this day – and look it up and down, up and down. “This one? Or the other one?” she asks. They can’t decide, so they backtrack along the trail, dusted with a sprinkling of snow.

“Leading up to Christmas, we try to do something different each week,” she says. That includes attending Christmas markets, or dedicating a weekend to cooking Portuguese holiday sweets. “Otherwise, it passes, and that’s it. It’s just gifts,” says Ms. Rais. “And that’s not really the meaning of Christmas.”

The couple finally settle on a 6-foot Nordic spruce. It’s not the most symmetrical one they have examined – the crown seems out of proportion – but something about it draws them. This is their tree. They take out the saw and cut. They fasten it on the red sleigh. Then they begin the trek back to the barn for baling – but not before stopping for a selfie.

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