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culture

Historical Holiday Hints: O Christmas Tree

Advice on the proper equipment for cutting your own tree and odes to the seasonal icon.

"Excuse Me" by M. Myer, the News, December 23, 1911.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, your branches green entice us!

The centrepiece of many homes at this time of year is a decorated tree. Whether it’s fir, pine, or plastic, a well-chosen tree establishes a cozy atmosphere. While there are occupational hazards such as falling needles or ornaments that pets treat as toys, a healthy, smart-looking tree will be a point of pride during holiday celebrations.

We don’t view Christmas trees as fruit-bearing plants, but an anonymous poem published in the Star in 1905 extolled the sweet goodness they produce:

The strawberries may shrivel and the apple crop may rot;
The peas may have the weevil, the potatoes go to pot;
But it is a consolation, as most anyone can see.
That no pest can kill the fruit crop of the dear old Christmas tree.

Sure it thrives in every climate and it grows in every soil.
And no simoon hot can blast it, nor no arctic zephyrs spoil;
It is always richly laden, and we view its fruit with glee;
There are never barren seasons with the dear old Christmas tree.

Ask the boys and girls about it; show them peach and plum and pear;
Ask ‘em which of all they fancy, which they most prefer to share.
See their smile, alike expectant, hear them every one agree,
That there is no fruit equal what grows on the Christmas tree.

"Excuse Me" by M. Myer, the News, December 23, 1911.

In the early 20th century, locally grown trees prompted those smiles. Most sold in Toronto were raised within a 140-kilometre radius of the city. According to St. Lawrence Market vendor James Bamford, these trees were grown on land that was too poor to produce wood suitable for lumber. “The farmers,” Bamford noted in a 1924 interview with the Star, “are glad to get rid of them in many cases.”

By the late 1970s, twice as many Toronto homes had artificial trees as had the real thing, due to the lack of maintenance they required. A market remained for the live trees, either on a street corner lot or out in a rural bush, but selling them required creativity. If a grower’s stock turned yellow, they could spray the trees with Greenzit, which was promoted as “a non-toxic, economical, natural colorant spray that won’t wash off.” Visitors to farms run by Murray Dryden in Caledon and York Region could cut their own tree and then, with a charitable donation, hire a Newfoundland or St. Bernard dog to haul it back to their vehicle. There was no indication if the St. Bernards also carried a small barrel of brandy to revive weary tree cutters.

Growers recommended that those heading out to the country to cut their trees should bring the proper equipment. The first piece of advice, offered to the Star in 1978: wear warm clothes and sturdy boots equipped to handle rough, snow-covered terrain (“the bush is no place for city shoes”). Buyers were also advised to bring their own saws for cutting and twine for tying, in case the grower had none to spare.

Left: the punchline to "Excuse Me" by M. Myer, the News, December 23, 1911. Right: advertisement, the Toronto Star, December 23, 1910.

True rugged types don’t go to tree farms. They roam the land in search of the perfect tree. Care must be taken, though, to avoid chopping down a tree on protected land. You will earn both a fine and public embarrassment via the press. Don’t be like Robert Blythe, whose quest for a pine in Vaughan was rewarded with a $63 penalty and a blurb on the front page of the Globe and Mail in December 1957.

This season, chop your tree wisely.

Additional material from the December 17, 1957, edition of the Globe and Mail, and the December 9, 1905, December 6, 1924, November 26, 1977, December 11, 1977, and December 7, 1978, editions of the Toronto Star.

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