The custom of keeping an indoor Christmas tree, like many Christmas traditions, has roots in the Pagan beliefs of over a thousand years ago. It was common for the branches of evergreen firs to be brought indoors to adorn the living space, and during the Roman holiday of Saturnalia fir trees were placed inside temples. As you open the gifts under the tree, take some time to consider the holiday tree itself and all the forms it’s taken around the world.

Natural Christmas Trees

Decorated Holiday Tree on Wood Floor

Choosing a living tree, be it from a lot, farm, or one you chop down and haul home from the forest has been the norm for decades if not centuries.

While Douglas Fir, the Noble Fir, and the easy to maintain Fraser Fir are popular, it’s not uncommon to see varieties of pine trees or spruce trees decorated with ornaments and garlands come the holiday season. For modern consumers of live cut trees, there’s three broad criteria that can help you pick the tree species that’s right for your celebration.

Appearance

When judging a potential tree, consider everything from the size to the color to the shape. Certain species like the Scotch Pine are great for keeping alive long term as they’re very resistant to drying out, but on the flipside it’s natural shape is bushier and will need trimming or training to produce a conical shape for a Christmas tree. The blue spruce or Picea pungens is vertaile as it can be grown in Zones 1 through 7, but as its name implies the needles have a blueish tint. If that isn’t going to mesh well with your holiday decor, consider another option

Needle Shape and Strength

Pine Needle Branch

If you plan on draping your natural tree with ornaments, you want a tree with branches that are sturdy enough to support hanging weight. The ideal Christmas tree will also be spaced well with needles that are group in a way that won’t make attaching hooks for decorations too difficult.

One variety that has gained popularity in recent years is the Grand Fir. A healthy specimen will maintain a rich, green color even during the weeks it’s indoors and its needles are long and nicely grouped. The one drawback is its branch strength. A living Grand Fir will have a softer wood with branches that are springy. If you plan on hanging any precious heirlooms while trimming one of these Christmas trees, be sure to test the branches and find the sturdiest ones. Even the popular Douglas Fir isn’t perfect in this department. If these holiday trees aren't sheared just right, the end result doesn’t always leave a lot of space between branches for hanging baubles.

Longevity

Christmas Tree debris and fallen ornaments swept into dustpan

Finally, all indoor holiday trees have a keepability threshold before they become unsightly or end up spreading more debris than Christmas cheer. The Norway Spruce for instance has great color and aroma, but extremely poor needle retention to the point that even tree growers and experts recommend purchasing yours no more than a week before the actual holiday unless you want a balding, prickly mess.

With good watering and attention Balsam Firs, Fraser Firs, and Scotch Pines should all stay hydrated, healthy looking, and give you a Christmas tree that won’t shed needles. One way to expand your options is to make a plan for transplanting your living tree to keep it growing even after the holidays, in which case timing and keepability is less of a concern.

Buying From A Lot

Woman checking trees at tree lot

If you’re not fortunate enough to live next to a sprawling forest of evergreens, here are some tips for buying a tree from a tree lot. Even if the selection is less diverse in terms of tree species, there’s a few things you can do on site to gauge the health of your Christmas tree before buying.

Keeping in mind the factors mentioned above, scrutinize the branches. This can be as simple as pinching on a branch and pulling down, and if that gentle motion strips the branch of a lot of its needles, the tree is a bad egg. If you’re feeling bold enough you can also jostle the entire trunk and watch for the areas that do or do not shed needles. It’s normal for a tree, even a healthy one, to lose some interior needles from this kind of an Xmas tree stress test, but a large amount of exterior leaves dropping off is a sign to choose another specimen. Don't hesitate to ask any employees at the tree lot when a tree was cut or about its condition if you're unsure. As much as they'd like to make a sale, there's plenty of trees so chances are they'll be happy to help you stay informed and buy the right tree for your holiday season, and not just whatever tree you happen to be sizing up at the moment.

Lastly, measure your tree. Just like with any other piece of wood you’d install in your home, you want this thing cut to size, so that means getting an accurate sense of your tree’s height and the width of its trunk. Many holiday goers neglect to make sure their Christmas tree trunk fits into their tree stand. While it’s possible to cut down the diameter of a trunk that’s too large to make it fit a smaller stand, stripping away too much bark from the trunk of your holiday tree will seriously impact its health.

Alternative Trees

Wood Mobile Christmas Tree with Ornaments

Like everything that’s been around for a while, the simple winter festival tree has undergone a number of facelifts and evolved beyond natural branches and needles.

Non-traditional Christmas tree designs run the gamut from the crafty upholstery trees, to minimalist wooden A-frames, to rustic natural pyramids made from pinecones and the ever elusive Christmas cactus.