I grew up in Southern Oregon where the Douglas-firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) thickly blanketed the mountainsides and provided a tidy income to the huge lumber companies. Our tree was always freshly cut on December 15th, and decorated the following day. The aroma of those glossy green boughs filled every nook and cranny of our home, brightening a corner of the living room until January 6th. What’s the significance of that date, and why did we wait so long to take down the tree? In western Christian culture, January 6th is Epiphany--the twelfth day of Christmas. Traditionally, the tree and all decorations come down on that day, with some folks believing that bad luck will come to those who clear up before then.

Years ago, I lived in a charming loft above a vintage train station in western Connecticut. That year, I dragged a very large fir tree up two flights of stairs, then reveled in the fragrance that hung on the air for the next two weeks. When January 6th arrived, I dutifully stripped the tree of its beautiful trappings. The tree had lost half its needles in my toasty loft atmosphere and I realized the remainder would drop during the trip across the living room and back down the stairs. An interesting feature of my loft was that it had a door that had once opened to an outside flight of stairs. They were long-gone, but the door still opened. Problem solved.

I dragged the tree over and pitched it out just as a neighbor lady came out of her house. She began to wail. “Oh no! You’ve killed all the fairies!” She wouldn’t speak to me for weeks.

Why did I tell you this story? To emphasize the point that, regardless of traditions, a dead tree must be put somewhere. I honestly don’t remember what my parents did with our tree, but my favorite way of handling it gives me added pleasure for the winter months. I set the tree up outside, in view of a window, then redecorate it with suet, cut pieces of fruit, and assorted things that my winter critters like. Pinecones rolled in peanut butter and birdseed make lovely decorations. When I’m feeling particularly crafty, I string cranberries or grapes and hang the strands over the branches. The birds and squirrels give me unlimited hours of enjoyment during the bleak days of January and February. And many great photo ops!

Rather than leave it at the curb for the trash man, how else can you recycle a used Christmas tree?

  • Do you live on a farm with a fish-stocked pond? The tree can be immersed in the deepest part to provide a habitat for the fish and aquatic animals living there.
  • Do you have a backyard “habitat”? Cut the tree in half (or thirds, if it is very large), then push the sections back into the underbrush around the perimeter, or under large shrubs in your “wild” area. In the spring, sow seeds for fast-growing or vining plants that will quickly cover the bare branches.
  • Do you have a wood-burning stove or a fireplace? Cut the trunk into suitable lengths and add to your woodpile for future fuel. NEVER try to burn the dry branches in a stove or fireplace; they are highly combustible and can quickly burn out of control.
  • Do you own a wood-chipper or have access to one? Chip the tree into mulch for spring, or to dry for fire-starter fuel.
  • If none of these ideas would work for you, check your local town website or newspaper to see if the city maintenance department is offering a collection site. Many smaller towns mulch these trees for use in city projects, and often invite residents to help themselves to the city mulch pile.

A live Christmas tree is a beautiful and valuable asset, so give it back to the Earth when its season is finished.

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 28, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)