In my last year of minor hockey, playing in the aptly named juvenile division, the team went into the Christmas tree business as a fundraiser. Armed with axes, chain saws and home brew that could also come in handy starting frozen vehicles, we tramped into the woods and murdered about 30 spruce. We whacked down 40-footers and then took only the top eight feet; we cut a few perfect pines from what was a controlled-growth area, despite signs telling us not to. It was the coach’s idea, and we got caught, and only some fast-talking kept the Natural Resources guy from seizing my old man’s pickup. As a business, our Christmas tree venture was poorly conceived and we ended up selling just one tree. It was a small town in the country and anyone who wanted a tree could wander into the bush do what we did, saving themselves 20 bucks.
In the real world, the Christmas tree industry is a whole lot more sophisticated. In Nova Scotia, two million trees are harvested annually, the second most for any province after Quebec. Up to 80 percent are exported out of the province, primarily to the US, but also to Christmas-friendly but evergreen challenged locations such as the Caribbean, Central America and Japan.
The industry employs 500 full-time and another 2,500 seasonal workers, and generates $30 to $40 million in annual sales.
Those seem like lofty numbers, but you can imagine how big the industry might be if it wasn’t for the fakers—the department store tree that comes in a box, is assembled in three easy steps and never drops a needle. Len Giffin, coordinator of the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia, is quick to confirm that the artificial tree is the bane of his existence.
“I was reading recently that some environmental group was encouraging people to buy an artificial tree because it would last for years, as opposed to a real one that you have to cut every year," he says. “That has to be the biggest pile of bull in history. When you’re finished with an artificial tree it goes into a dump. It’s not biodegradable and is a terrible product. Whereas with a real tree, you cut off the branches and use them in the garden to cover your roses in the winter, and when you’re done with that you grind them up and it goes back to nature, 100 percent recyclable." In terms of sustainability, Giffin says, for every Christmas tree cut in Nova Scotia, two are planted in its place.
A lot of that planting takes place in Lunenburg County, which self-assuredly calls itself the Balsam Fir Christmas Tree Capital of the World. There’s even a massive sign on Highway 103 announcing this title.
“We got that distinction in 1996," says Mike Falkenham, a well-known county grower. “We started designating it ourselves, and then our MP Gerald Keddy made a proclamation in the House of Commons and it was entered into the minutes of the House."
Having federal government backing is good, because there are others who would like to claim the Christmas Tree Capital of the World title and all the glory that goes along with it.
Cathy Campbell Favelle lives near Wautoma, Wisconsin where, until last year, her family had been in the Christmas tree business for 44 years. She says that town’s entitlement to be considered number one in the peddling of pine is all about size.
“We had over 5,200 acres of Christmas trees, and we were only the second biggest company in the area," she says. “The Kirk Company has over 10,000 acres. I don’t know where it started, but we’ve been the Christmas tree capital for as long as I remember."
It appears, however, that Wautoma’s hold is tenuous. Campbell Favelle admits the number of tree growers in the area is diminishing, and a woman at the local Chamber of Commerce concedes that the slogan is slowly fading out of favour.
“It was one of those things that the Chamber or the Jaycees come up with," she says. “We have a new one now. We’re ‘Where the North Begins.’" She laughs when she says this, and volunteers that she vacationed in the Maritimes last year, and loved Halifax.
The other pretender to the throne is Indiana County, Pennsylvania, where growing Christmas trees caught on in the early 1900s as a way of keeping area mine works from eroding. Jonathan Longwill of the county tourist bureau says there is documentation to back up Indiana County’s world capital status.
“In 1952, Fortune magazine declared Indiana County the Christmas Tree Capital of the World," he says. “There are other areas that grow trees, but we’ve always said we’ve been here the longest, and we do a pretty good job of marketing it." Along with souvenir license plates and prominently placed billboards, each year the county nominates an Evergreen Queen who helps light the Indiana County-donated tree at the state capitol. Just as a back up, Longwill says, Indiana County is the birthplace of Jimmy Stewart, who starred in a little Christmas flick you migh have heard of called It’s a Wonderful Life.
Yeah, well, Lunenburg County is the birthplace of Hank Snow. Falkenham, who launched the Christmas Tree Wall of Fame to honour people working behind the Christmas tree scenes in the province, doesn’t sound too worried about the Americans. He sees Lunenburg’s competition much closer to home.“Antigonish is producing a lot more trees than they used to, and we’re probably producing less because a lot of our fellows are getting older," he says. Still, Falkenham will concede nothing, knowing Lunenburg has the House of Commons on their side. “Whoever puts in for it first, gets it."
In this season of peace and goodwill, it just may take a coniferous cagematch for any challenger to wrest the title away.