The Shocking Origins of Christmas Trees

Christmas Eve is almost upon us...and traditionally, this is when folks get their Christmas tree. If you do it right, you'll get it the night before, decorate it, and break it down before New Year's. But this is no longer how we do it; we make the moment stretch--stretch to accommodate the long season of buying, of capitalism, of movies--rolling out like red carpets; we buy the Christmas tree at the beginning of December and festoon it with imitation German ornaments hand-crafted in China. And then we worry as our little slice of Yule becomes old and brittle and ready to set the house on fire.

My neighbors do it right, though. They're the Volvo couple--classy in every way. He's a photographer who just had a show in Paris. She's a food stylist who always has parties where people take instagrams of the charcuterie. They make all their food in Le Creuset Dutch Ovens. Sometimes I see them in their picture window--her quilting, him lighting dinner candles--and I think dark thoughts about the inadequacies of my frozen lasagna.

This is how classy they are: they only just bought their tree yesterday, they have yet to decorate it, they will promptly drop it in the bin the day after. They are purists in every way and follow American traditions to the L*E*T*T*E*R. It is incredibly stressful to live next to them.

But I console myself with smug thoughts: one of the paradoxes about Christmas is that it is and isn't about purity. It's a pagan holiday; its traditions, grafted onto an invasive species--the colonizing force propelling a religion that, like a barnacle underneath the great ship of conquest, hitched a ride from distant waters and plopped down in a new place, promptly eliminating all the flora and fauna that it touched.

The Christmas tree is a great example of that. Not a lot of people know that the most typical--the most popular--Christmas tree comes from a little subtropical island that belongs to South Korea. Cheju Island is a far flung outpost of Korea--an outlier of the peninsula, mainly because it sits in the Pacific Ocean closer to the equator. Cheju enjoys a climate that makes it something like Hawaii. And people go there for honeymoons or senior class school trips or the pleasures of legalized gambling.

During the Korea war, American GI's would go to Cheju Island for R&R--to get over the shell shock. And the popular story goes that it is on that volcanic island that the commercial potential of the Korean Fir was realized by an enterprising young American. I hardly have to describe it to you because if you are an American, you already know: the tree is a perfectly shaped cone and bushy and resistant to disease and fast-growing: in short, it is a sure profit with little loss during production. It has the additional merit of being pure eye candy.

The American GI story is how I heard it first from my wife who is of Korean origin and first gave me the account of the Gusang Namu, as it is called. And this is how the story goes when it travels among her people--the popular story told by Koreans who relish giving this little fact of their hand in the great Western institution that they have taken to heart. But it's most likely a bastardized story with some truth-elements: there's just too much Romanticism in it all.

For me, the more important story is not a romantic one but a courtroom drama. You see, Abies Koreana may have traveled to the US for commercial purposes after the Korean War, but it was first brought to the US of A by scientists in 1904 who housed the specimen in the Smithsonian. Why is this significant?

Well, the fact that the Korean Fir Tree was collected by the Smithsonian means that it is "owned" by them, not by the country of origin. And so this tree, like so many other natural resources, can be licensed...just as Monsanto licenses its seeds. For a more in depth discussion of this, you can read about it here: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2009/12/117_57895.html

1904 is a significant period in Korean history--a time of great vulnerability. You see, Korea was previously a Hermit Kingdom--a country cut off from Western contact until the last great imperial dynasty fell in 1895. From 1895-1910, Korea experienced a time of flux--a "period between empires," as historians term it--a time of great vulnerability that ended when Japan took over and turn it into a colony.

So, the entry of the United States in 1904 to take "specimens" falls at an opportune moment--a moment when nobody was on guard, when the virgin nation wandered its garden in the dark of the night without protection. Korea is quite aware of this. It pressed for "recovery of rights" at the International Convention of Biological Diversity in 2010. I'm not sure if this action was successful but, if so, it would entitle the country to get a slice of the royalties not only for a tree that has become the symbol of an American celebration but also 20,000 specimens, 280 of which are being used commercially.

So this is one angle in the story of the Christmas tree--one playing out in diplomatic circles--that is behind the tree that we all festoon with tinsel and twinkling lights. I have half a mind to walk over to my classy Volvo neighbors and tell them this story of cultural imperialism and rape and legal shenanigans. "Your Christmas tree is sheer hokum," I'd tell them. But I know that they'd just invite me into a candle light dinner of Le Creuset pot roast. The man of the house would offer me a steaming glass of Christmas cheer. And I'd feel just plain awful because I would prove to myself, once again, exactly how small and begrudging I always knew I was.