This lesson is composed of six learning activities to teach about the Christmas tree. Science, history, and geography topics are used to explore the history of the Christmas tree, life cycle of a conifer, types of trees and how they adapt, work on a Christmas tree farm, and the ecology of conifer trees.
conifer: a tree that bears cones and evergreen needlelike or scalelike leaves
Did you know? (Ag Facts)
Artificial Christmas trees were developed in Germany during the 19th century and later became popular in the United States.1
Helicopters help to lift harvested Christmas trees from some farms.1
Live Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since about 1850.1
Background Agricultural Connections
Interest Approach – Engagement
Ask the students to name a few things that farmers produce. Allow the students to raise their hands and name a few items. Once the students are actively thinking about what farmers grow/produce, tell them that you are going to play a guessing game and that you are going to give them some clues. Inform them that in some places farmers use a helicopter to harvest this product. What is it? Use the following clues:
It is harvested one time per year.
It is not a food crop.
It is not produced by animals. (If needed, help students conclude that it is produced by plants.)
It takes 6-10 years to grow.
It has needles instead of leaves.
It is primarily green and cone-shaped.
It is most associated with the Christmas holiday.
What is it? (a Christmas tree)
Show the video clip of a helicopter tree harvest. Clarify that not all Christmas trees are harvested this way, but some are depending on the location of the farm.
Ask students where they think the tradition of cutting and decorating evergreen trees in December comes from. Chances are, most will associate the tradition with the Christian holiday of Christmas.
Activity 1: The History of the Christmas Tree
Give each student a copy of the History of the Christmas Tree handout. Ask them to read the handout and discuss the highlights of it together as they answer the following questions:
When did the tradition of cutting evergreen trees and boughs begin?
With what seasonal event does it coincide?
How did the tradition manifest in different cultures?
In what country did the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it begin?
Who is credited with popularizing the tradition?
Note that German musicians have celebrated the steadfast qualities of evergreen trees in song since the 1500s, including the well-known O Tannenbaum, written by Ernst Anschütz in 1824. The German word, Tannenbaum, translates into English as “fir tree” (die Tanne) or Christmas tree (der Weihnachtsbaum).
Listen to O Tannenbaum, sung by the Vienna Boys Choir, available on YouTube.
Discuss how the ideas reflect the centuries-old connection between evergreens and themes of eternity, hope, and renewal.
Then, using the O Tannenbaum Lyrics handout, have students read the two English variations of those literally translated lyrics, adapted to rhyme and fit the melody of the German tune.
Ask your students to write their own version of the song, incorporating the basic ideas from the original song into a tune of their choosing (could be rap, rock, bluegrass, country, etc). Encourage them to work in small groups. They should provide a recording (or a link to a recording) of the original song (unless it’s universally known, like America the Beautiful). Consider offering extra credit for in-class performance and musical instrument accompaniment!
Activity 2: Getting a Sense of Conifers
Begin by asking your students how trees survive the dark, dry, cold months of winter. Every fall, many trees, like maples and oaks, lose their leaves and stand bare all winter long. However, conifers are far different. Except for a very few species—like the American larch, which loses all its needles in fall like a deciduous tree—conifers keep most of their leaves throughout the year and stay green throughout the cold winter months.
Give each student one copy of the Design a Winter-Proof Conifer activity sheet. Explain that scientists have studied conifers to learn about how their features help them survive the winter. Your students can ponder this on their own as they complete theactivitysheet.
After completing the worksheet, explain that conifers have many amazing characteristics that help them survive and thrive in a tremendous variety of climates around the world, from coastal rain forests to the frigid northern reaches of Siberia.
Have students complete the activity sheet, Surviving Winter- The Advantages of Being a Conifer with your help if needed. (See the Teacher's Key found in the Essential Files).
Activity 3: Pines, Spruces, Firs, and More
Show your students a picture of a fir or spruce tree and ask them what it is. Chances are, they’ll call it a pine tree. You’d be amazed how many children’s books do the same! There are dozens of species of evergreen trees both native and introduced, and only a handful of those are actually pines. Welcome to the world of conifers—fir, spruce, juniper, cedar, cypress, larch, pine, and more!
Introduce your students to a simple, handy, alliterative phrase they can use to differentiate among conifer types. “Pine needles come in packets. Spruce needles are square. Fir needles are flat and friendly.” Or an even quicker way to remember it: “Pines come in packets, spruces are square, firs are flat and friendly.” This phrase relates to the shared characteristics of trees in each of these three main groupings of conifers. Pines share the characteristic that their needles grow in packets or bundles, called “fascicles." Spruce needles are square in cross-section, so when you roll one in your fingers, you’ll notice the bump-bump-bump of the squared sides. Fir needles are flat, and when you grab a fir branch, it’s soft to the touch, not prickly like pines and spruces. This phrase over-simplifies the real-life story of diversity in the forest, since, for instance, there are conifer species like Eastern hemlock that have flat needles but aren’t firs, but it’s a great starting point.
Provide a hands-on opportunity for your students to see and identify different species of conifer. Choose one of the following activities:
Field Trip to a Christmas Tree Farm: If possible, have students work in small groups to identify as many different species of conifers as possible during their site visit, using the Identifying Conifers activity sheet. Ask the Christmas tree farmer to explain his or her reasons for growing the particular conifer species found on this farm. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? What challenges does each species offer, from planting through harvest?
Tip: If there aren't any Christmas tree farms in your area, your local park or even your school grounds may have a variety of conifer species that your students could observe.
In-class Conifer Activity: Bring as many samples of conifer tree boughs as you can find. Have students sit together in pairs, and give each pair a clipping of pine, spruce, and fir. Talk through the process of noticing the needle packets on the pine twig, the square needles on the spruce twig, and the flat, soft (not prickly) needles of the fir.
Optional: Add an art project to this activity by helping students make a small wreath or another Christmas decoration with the evergreen clippings.
Activity 4: Real or Artificial Christmas Trees?
Introduce this activity by discussing how every day we make choices that have both direct and indirect impacts on our personal lives, our communities, and the world around us. For example: Should I buy bread baked at the local bakery or commercial bread from the supermarket? Should I carry that bread home in a plastic or paper bag, or in a reusable cloth bag brought from home? Should I hang my wet laundry on a drying rack or put it in an electric dryer? Though we don’t often take the time to carefully list and weigh the pros and cons of these choices, it can be eye-opening to do so. What real differences do our choices make?
Tell the students that today they’ll be considering the question of real versus artificial Christmas trees. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, in the United States in 2012, people bought roughly 24.5 million real conifers and 10.9 million artificial Christmas trees. Which kind is better? What are the costs and benefits, the pros and cons, of each?
Remind your students that “better” is a subjective term. Better for what? In this activity, they’ll be considering the question in terms of whether it is better for:
The air we breathe
The water we drink
Plants and wildlife
Give each of your students a copy of the blank Real or Artificial? activitysheet.
Have them complete the activity sheet on their own or in small groups, either through in-class or take-home research. Then have them discuss their findings as a whole class, and encourage respectful debate.
When the discussion is complete, ask students to decide, based on their overall findings, whether they think real or artificial trees are a better choice for people looking to purchase a Christmas tree. See the attached Teacher's Key for the Real or Artificial? activity sheet for more details.
Have each student develop an advertisement poster for real or artificial Christmas trees, coming up with a slogan, marketing pitch, and price point. Have them present their posters to the class. When all have been presented, discuss the most effective strategies and pitches.
Activity 5: A Four-Season Job
What are the characteristics of a picture-perfect Christmas tree? (conical, bushy, fully green, symmetrical.) On a Christmas tree farm, farmers put a great deal of time and effort into nurturing these qualities. It takes a lot of work because natural elements, like fire, wind, snow, ice, insects, and diseases, tend to shape the tree differently.
White pine weevils, for instance, kill the terminal shoot (top of the main stem) of white pines, which causes one or more side branches to grow upwards and assume the role of terminal shoot, greatly changing the shape of the tree. Perpetual high winds can cause “Krummholz,” the deformation and stunting of conifers. And that’s just for starters. The list of natural elements that can damage conifers and reduce the economic value of Christmas trees is extensive.
Have each student pick an insect, disease, or other natural event (wind, ice, fire) and research its effect on conifers. These effects may be dramatically different for different conifer species. If your student chooses a complex element like fire, which has vastly different effects on different species, you might suggest that they limit their research to just one species (for instance, researching how Jack pines are shaped by fire).
Then have students create a 5-minute presentation on their findings. Encourage them to create visual aids that will illustrate their findings.
Have students share their presentations with their classmates.
Activity 6: Nutrient Cycling
Communities across the country are practicing innovative ways to recycle and reuse Christmas trees. Take a look at the National Christmas Tree Association website with your students and read together about more than a dozen great ways to recycle and reuse Christmas trees, from fortifying sand dunes to creating fish habitat in ponds and rivers.
Make inquiries with your town or city hall to find out what programs your community has in place to recycle or reuse Christmas trees.
Share and discuss these existing strategies with your students.
Have your students work in small groups to develop a proposal for a new and different way to utilize discarded Christmas trees in your town. Their proposal should describe the project’s vision and rationale for your particular community. It should also consider the opportunities and constraints involved of implementing the program in terms of economics, labor, logistics, environmental concerns, and so on.
Have students present their project proposals to their classmates.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following concepts:
Christmas trees are classified as conifers. They do not lose their needles in the winter.
Christmas trees grow naturally in forests, but they can also be grown and harvested from farms.
It takes 8-10 years to grow a Christmas tree on a farm.
We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!
View the 360 video ExplOregon Agriculture - Christmas Tree Harvest to learn more about how Christmas trees are grown and harvested. This video is best viewed using a virtual reality (VR) viewing device, but can also be viewed on a computer, smart phone, or tablet without a VR viewer. VR viewers are available for purchase at agclassroomstore.com.
The Tree Book, by Gina Ingoglia, is a good resource for this age group, with information on buds, bark, seeds, leaves, fruit, photosynthesis, characteristics of conifers and deciduous trees, and more.
Introduce the idea of the dichotomous key as a tool for honing in on the identification of plants and animals through a very fun kids’ game, Guess Who? (created by Hasbro), designed for ages 6 and up.
Conduct the activity, Growing Up Evergreen to teach students how conifers grow from cone to maturity.
Compare how the different structures of plants and animals serve various functions of growth, survival and reproduction. For example: Skeletons in animals and stems in plants provide strength and stability.
Identify common groups of plants and animals using observable physical characteristics, structures and behaviors. For example: Sort animals into groups such as mammals and amphibians based on physical characteristics. Another example: Sort and identify common Minnesota trees based on leaf/needle characteristics.
Define the productivity of a resource and describe ways to increase it.
For example: Productivity equals the amount of output divided by the amount of input (resource). Things that can increase productivity—division of labor, specialization, improvements in technology (the way things are made). The productivity of a corn farmer (resource) has been improved by the use of specialized equipment, development of new varieties of seeds and fertilizers and improved farming techniques.
Agricultural Literacy Outcomes
Culture, Society, Economy & Geography
Provide examples of agricultural products available, but not produced in their local area and state (T5.3-5.e)
Agriculture and the Environment
Identify the major ecosystems and agro-ecosystems in their community or region (e.g., hardwood forests, conifers, grasslands, deserts) with agro-ecosystems (e.g., grazing areas and crop growing regions) (T1.3-5.d)