Contesting the Christmas Tree

Re-Presenting the Representational Tree

Samuel Maddox (MDes ULE ’19)


If you plan on buying a Christmas tree this year, you should probably consider lowering your expectations and raising your budget. Just last year, Christmas trees were not only harder to find, they were also the most expensive that they had been in a decade. The average price of these trees has more than doubled since 2008. This precipitous rise in the market value of the Christmas tree was—and continues this year to be—a lingering effect of the Great Recession.1 After 2008, tree sales were so bad that Oregon, the largest supplier of Christmas trees in the US, saw over one third of its growers leave the business between 2010 and 2015, resulting in a decrease in newly planted trees from 6.4 to 4.7 million, a loss of more than 26%.2 Even though national economic tides have seemingly now turned, Christmas consumers are only just now feeling the effects of this almost decade-old economic decline due to the eight-to-twelve-year growth cycle of the tree.3 The delayed market impact of this seasonal commodity’s scarcity reveals the oft-taken-for-granted Christmas tree as more than mere decoration but as a contemporary representation of the socioecological dynamics that lie at the very origin of western holiday practices, ideas like when to sow, when to harvest, and when to save.

This urban metabolic reading of the Christmas tree serves as an entrée to problematizing the seasonally ubiquitous tree as a multivalent symbol not only subject to the fluctuations of markets but also with more discreet, hegemonic cultural constructs. Through a historical semiotic analysis of the Christmas tree (hereafter, “the Tree”), interrogating it as Saussurean signifier, the tree can be broken down and understand afresh as not just a holiday decoration but as a tool, designed and redesigned for control.4 The Tree exists at different periods in time as index, symbol, and icon. In its earliest iterations, the Tree was perhaps not even yet a true tree but instead the mere presence of evergreen plant matter at the Roman feasts of Saturnalia and Kalends as well as the Germanic festival of Yule. In these earliest of instances, the presence of the proto-Tree as evergreen in midst of deep, dark winter was an indexical signification that Spring would return.5 After the advance of Christianity in Europe and the widescale cooptation of pagan ritual, the Tree began to become a symbol by signifying religious, national, and familial ideologies.6 From its modern origins as the centerpiece in the Christian “mystery plays” of medieval Germany, the Tree eventually made its way into Victorian England in 1848 through the British royal family. Introduced by Prince Albert, a German himself, the image of the family gathered about the tree was published and widely disseminated throughout Britain.7 This domestic identity of the Tree was of particular importance in the early to mid-1800’s when the effects of the fully-matured English Industrial Revolution were finally being widely felt, resulting in economic instability from labor strikes on the one hand and the simultaneous emergence of a consumer-based, middleclass economy on the other.8 The Tree, therefore, was an important symbol, not only of family, but of a bygone era of handcraftsmanship, childish folklore, and darkness enshrouded mystery typical of the heavily-forested and fairytale-rich land of Germany, a region that wouldn’t see its own industrial wave for another twenty years.9

Of course, the Tree in the context of the US has been no less an instrument of capitalist ideology than its European predecessors. The last form of signification—and one we are all too familiar with—is the icon, the image of the thing as itself.10 The Tree as icon is perhaps best observed today in advertising. One need only think of the seasonal aisle lined with sugary, prepackaged snacks emblazoned with the Tree or even manufactured (usually very poorly) in its shape. The iconographic nature of the Tree is the cheaper, simpler employment of the Tree as signifier to boost sales through a basely nostalgic appeal.

The Tree not only means a change of season is coming when it makes its appearance each year at Christmas tree stands and in homes, malls, and plazas almost indexically, but it marks time on a grander scale representing where we’ve been societally, how we’ve changed, and where were going. The Tree is a canary in a coalmine as it is constantly reconstructed and made in the image of the moment through the lens of the past. Think of the almost space-age silver trees of the middle of the 20th century or the presumably ecologically-friendly rentable potted Trees of today. There is constraint in the form and image of the tree, but there is also immense creativity and thus invention and agency. The tree comes to represent the underlying consciousness of the maker—as a symbol of not only the collective but the individual, the tree has become a conduit of identity and consensus.11 It is all of these identities, fluctuating and changing as a sign of time passing. The Tree does work. It is a kind of infrastructure that embodies, microcosmically, the environments we create and those we contend with and symbolizes the ideals we value. The question going forward is how to move beyond reading the Christmas tree as it exists now—as a simulacral representation—and deploy it, hack it, or even re-represent it to facilitate the futures we most need.


  1. Hsu, Tiffany. “Why You’ll Probably Pay More for Your Christmas Tree this Year.” New York Times, Nov. 30, 2017. Accessed 05/12/2018.

  2. “GWD: US to Face Major Christmas Tree Shortages Until ‘At Least 2025’ | Canadian Growers Set to Fill the Gap." GWD Forestry. Accessed 05/10/2018.

  3. Limbach, Elizabeth. “The Christmas-Tree Shortage Could Last for Years.” The Atlantic, Dec 12, 2017. Accessed 05/10/2018.

  4. Saussure, Ferdinand de, et al., 2011. Course in General Linguistics., S.l. pp 66-70.

  5. Forbes, Bruce David. 2015. America's Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. Oakland, California: University of California Press, pp 14-17.

  6. Peirce, Charles S. & Buchler, Justus, 1955. Philosophical writings of Peirce, New York: Dover Publications, pp 104-15.

  7. Forbes, Bruce David. 2015. America's Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. Oakland, California: University of California Press, pp 32-34.

  8. Whiteley, Sheila, 2008. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture. Edinburgh University Press, pp 98-99.

  9. Veblen, Thorstein. 1915. Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution. Harvard Social History/business Preservation Microfilm Project. Project 2a; 22050. New York, London, Macmillan & Co., Ltd.: Macmillan Company. Web. Accessed 05/09/2018., pp 168-80.

  10. Peirce, Charles S. & Buchler, Justus, 1955. Philosophical writings of Peirce, New York: Dover Publications, pp 104-07.

  11. Levere, Jane. 2013. “Wisconsin Museum Exhibits Space-Age Aluminum Christmas Trees.” Lifestyle. Accessed 05/10/2018.; Platt, John. “A new holiday trend: Renting Christmas trees.” Mother Nature Network. Accessed 05/13/2018.

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