Denmark's first Christmas tree appeared in 1808 at Holsteingsborg Gods in southern Jutland after the lord of the manor imported the idea from Germany. Now Denmark, with annual production of 10-12 million trees, is estimated to be just behind the US as the world's largest exporter of Christmas trees, according to the Danish Christmas Tree Association (Dansk Juletræer – DJ).
The custom of decorating a fir or pine tree was already three centuries old in parts of the Baltic region when the notion entered Denmark. As things tend to go full circle, around 90 percent of Denmark's annual production is exported and Germany takes more than half of the trees.
You would think Nordic countries such as Sweden, Norway or Finland, with their huge forestry industries, would be major Christmas tree exporters, but no, it is Denmark that leads the pack. In fact, Norway's once thriving Christmas tree industry has whittled down to the point where exports are down to almost nothing and even the Norwegians have turned to importing Danish trees.
DJ says there is a simple reason for Denmark's success.
“It's agriculture. Denmark has the space, the soil, and the climate. Growing Christmas trees is a good business,” says Claus Christensen, DJ's director. The 30-year-old association represents around 4,000 companies involved in the Christmas tree business.
Christensen explains that it takes roughly two square metres to grow an average household-sized tree that can take 7-10 years to grow. “Let's say it takes eight years to grow a tree. What the grower gets at the time of sale will be more than the sum he would have got through the years from most other agro products,” he says. “But remember, Christmas trees are a long-term investment and growing them is not subsidized.”
A grower doesn't simply plant a tree and cut it down several years later. Although Christmas trees may be less labour intensive than other agro products, they do demand attention and there is a fungus among us. The Neonectria fungus has invaded Denmark and poses threats not only to Christmas trees, but also certain fruit trees. DJ heads projects to combat the fungus as well as other problems growers may face.
Take a bough
Denmark's Christmas tree industry logged a total of more than one billion kroner in 2013 from the sale of trees alone. Through the years, DJ members have branched off into other areas and produce around 42,000 tonnes of greenery that fetch an additional 300 million kroner or so each year.
Much of the greenery goes to companies making value-added products such as Christmas wreaths. Poland takes a lot of Danish greenery and transforms it into Christmas decorations for further sale. Production of greenery advanced fivefold in 2013, while the overall success of Christmas tree sales has created an air of optimism: the total area planted rose by around 26 percent in the same year.
“Dancing trees” are the result of a measure taken to improve growing conditions. Many growers monitor their crop with fixed cameras that snap a picture every 15 minutes. They have captured regular patterns of motion among the developing trees and when the images are viewed in rapid sequence, it appears the trees are dancing.
Nordmann fir is the most commonly grown Christmas tree in Denmark. If you want to impress friends with your knowledge, just tell them that a two-metre-tall specimen has roughly 200,000 needles.
Charles Ferro is a freelance copywriter who specializes in lifestyle and travel. A previous version of this article was published in 2014.