> >
November 1, 2023 7 minute READ

Raising Christmas Cheer

tags Adventure | At Home | Local Flavor
locations All
Christmas Trees in the field covered in snow

Last fall, a two-week tour of epic proportions crossed North Carolina. It began in the Pisgah National Forest, twisted through the Smoky Mountains, maneuvered up into the High Country, rolled down to the Foothills and Piedmont, and eventually reached the sandy plains of the coast. It stopped over in more than a dozen towns all across the Old North State, literally “from Murphy to Manteo.”

Thousands of North Carolinians came out to see the headliner of this tour in their hometowns’ parks, plazas, and schoolyards. The star that was such an attraction, however, wasn’t a singer, celebrity, or even a person. It was Ruby the Red Spruce.  

Ruby the Red Spruce visits Watauga High School in Boone, NC - Photo Courtesy of Watauga OnlineRuby, a 78-foot evergreen tree, was bound for the United States Capitol as its annual Christmas Tree. While Ruby wasn’t yet decorated for her audiences as she was en route to the Capitol, all who saw her knew that she was destined to shine and represent her Carolina home with pride.

And shine with pride she certainly did! Ruby was the first North Carolina tree in 26 years chosen as the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. It’s an honor that bears special distinction since this Christmas Tree, among all in the nation, is called “The People’s Tree.”

Although it had been a while since North Carolina last claimed the privilege of providing our country The People's Tree, the state often provides Christmas Trees that appear in other prominent locations, including the White House. Since 1970, a North Carolina Fraser fir has graced the Blue Room (or occasionally the Entrance Hall depending on the First Lady’s decorating preferences) as the centerpiece of the White House’s holiday décor 14 times. That’s more than any other tree variety from any other state. (Photo at right is courtesy of Watauga Online.)

The North Carolina Fraser fir itself is the most popular Christmas tree variety in North America, according to the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association. Its beauty, fragrance, soft needles, and strong yet pliable branches make it ideal to bear decorations in any living room, and, not surprisingly, the National Christmas Tree Association has named it the United States’ best Christmas Tree variety.  

Growing the Fraser fir is also a thriving agricultural industry for North Carolina farmers. The North Carolina Cooperative Extension estimates that five to six million of these trees are harvested each year, and they are shipped from North Carolina to every state in the nation as well as several countries abroad. The wholesale value of the crop is upwards of $100 million. This places the state’s Christmas tree industry second in the United States by number of trees harvested and cash receipts.

While North CarArlo signs Ruby's olina tree farmers grow other common household Christmas tree varieties – although not typically colossal red spruces like Ruby – including Scotch pines, Canaan firs, eastern red cedars, and Leyland cypresses among several others, the Fraser fir represents 99.4% of all species grown in the state. 

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension points out, too, that Christmas tree farming is a zero-waste industry because its products are completely recyclable and renewable. Most farmers take advantage of sustainable growing practices. Fraser firs are slow-growth trees, which take 10 or more years to reach maturity and harvest; therefore, farmers must alternate their planting patterns in order to ensure a full crop each successive season.

The mountains of Western North Carolina are the historic home of this form of agriculture thanks to their cooler climate. It happens that the counties with the highest concentration of Christmas tree farms are also the home region of several Mast General Store communities. These include the High Country counties of Watauga, Ashe, Alleghany, Avery, and Yancey as well as those high-elevation counties farther southwest like Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, and Mitchell. Altogether, in these and other top-producing counties, there are more than 1,300 Christmas tree farms that comprise approximately 40,000 acres of North Carolina’s pristine mountain landscape.

Ruby the Red Spruce on the Capitol GroundsWith North Carolina accounting for nearly 20% of the country’s Christmas tree production, it’s certainly not the only state in the Mast Store’s area that produces this festive crop. According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Commonwealth harvests 4.3 million trees each year from 460 farms. This makes it the seventh-largest Christmas Tree producer in terms of inventory.

The northeast corner of Tennessee shares a similar elevation, climate, and geography to North Carolina, and its Christmas tree farms also grow primarily Fraser fir as well. While the farms aren’t as abundant statewide as they are throughout its neighbor to the east, you can still find a good number of them, especially in East Tennessee.

Sunny South Carolina is a bit different as you might imagine. Christmas trees still grow in its warmer climate – just not the Fraser fir (although there are still a few farms that can support this variety in the most northwestern reaches of the Upstate). The Palmetto State’s Christmas tree farms extend all the way to the marshy Lowcountry, but most specialize in producing pine, cypress, and cedar. Still, the South Carolina Christmas Tree Association has 46 member farms that sell roughly 40,000 homegrown trees each year.

This Christmas season, before you crawl through your attic to drag out boxes of decorations or make plans to attend your community’s Christmas tree lighting celebration, take a moment to appreciate the magic of this seasonal symbol. There’s simply something indescribable about the way a Christmas tree can draw us together and bring families and neighbors such abounding joy. Why else would we gather in towns across our state to see a local Christmas tree like Ruby the Red Spruce on its way to represent our home in the nation’s capital or take such pride in the tree in our own living room once the last ornament is hung in just the right position and the star topping its highest branch is lit?

Snow-covered Christmas TreeAlso consider this year that, in addition to the warmth they bring to our holiday season, Christmas trees provide livelihoods for many local farmers. Their sales put the family Christmas meal on these folks’ tables, and bolster our county, regional, and state economies. If you’ve never savored the aroma of a real Christmas tree in your home during the Holidays, we’d encourage you to give it a shot this year! It’s easy as long as you water it properly, set it away from any open flames, and make sure low-hanging lights and decorations are out of the reach of any pets or small children. Or, if you’re already a live tree purist, we encourage you to “shop locally” for your tree and visit a nearby choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm. We guarantee there’s no better way to usher in the season than taking out the family for a day trip to choose the perfect tree over a cup of hot cocoa that’s perhaps even topped off with a Christmas hayride.

However you and yours observe the Holidays, remember that Christmas tree roots run deep in our hometowns, empower our communities to flourish in many senses, and connect us all.

Photo of Ruby the Red Spruce during the Lighting Ceremony was taken by Phi Nguyen and Brendan O'Hara and appears on the House of Representatives website.

join catalog mailing list tell me more