December is a month when trees are relied upon to bring colour and warmth into homes on long, dark, cold nights.

THE final month of the year, December must have seemed like the end of the world to our ancestors, with darkening skies, biting frosts – a dismal time of the year. This may be why pagan communities celebrated yuletide by bringing boughs of evergreen foliage into the home to please the woodland spirits, while lifting their own.

The same applies to contemporary Christmas celebrations, which now seem to occupy the whole of December. The month ranks as one of the most popular of the year in Christian countries of the Northern Hemisphere, consistently voted the best month of the year by North Americans. But strip out Christmas and there’s not much left to celebrate. Scottish novelist, essayist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson clearly thought along these lines.

A naked house, a naked moor,
A shivering pool before the door,
A garden bare of flowers or fruit
And poplars at the garden foot.
Such is the place that I live in,
Bleak without and bare within.

From ‘December’ by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94)

December dawns with broadleaf deciduous woodland now skeletal in appearance.

Ash, beech, birch, hornbeam and a host of other native tree species have dropped their entire leaf load, leaving just the English oak tree clothed in dry, papery and tannin-rich brown leaves that will hang on until the first storms of the New Year.

And maybe some yellow leaves are still tenuously tied to twigs on field maples. Down by the river, native common alder remains uniquely green but ready to drop its leaves all at once, as if in response to a pre-ordained signal.
Shakespeare summed it all up:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none or few, do bang
Upon those boughs, which shake against the cold
Bare, ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

From ‘A Sonnet’ by William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

Holding the foliar fort are the evergreen tree species, historically limited to Scots pine, English yew and English holly, with naked deciduous trees like English ash and English oak still covered in evergreen ivy. Today our handful of native evergreen trees is augmented by a wealth of welcome exotic conifers and some not-so-welcome alien evergreen shrubs like Rhododendron ponticum and cherry laurel. 

Forestry Journal:  Log fires are closely associated with Christmas time during the month of December Log fires are closely associated with Christmas time during the month of December (Image: Kingwell Holdings)

Nevertheless, all are made to measure for bearing up under the weight of the first substantial snowfall, which used to be one of the traditional treats of December.

Indeed December is the month when evergreens come into their own, worthy of the attentions of poets and painters. English holly has always had a special place at Christmas in the Holy calendar and English yew at less joyous times, but conifers are generally neglected even at this time, when coverings of snow enhance their natural beauty.

However, even during desperately dark and bitingly cold December nights, we should remember these unpleasant events have a purpose, especially for those skeleton-like deciduous trees. That is to send the winter buds into a deep dormancy to protect the embryonic leaves and flowers from frost, until it is safe for the buds to break free in spring. 

Cold is also crucial for evergreen trees, especially conifers, to fix the needles to the twigs and branches. Cold conditioning of conifers is not so generally well-known or appreciated by the public, but certainly is by Christmas-tree growers. This is how to avoid the problem of needle drop, which has come to haunt the industry as the run-up to Christmas starts earlier and earlier each year. This means Christmas trees are cut and harvested that much earlier, invariably before any cold snap in early December can be of benefit. 

Needle-drop problems were associated with Norway spruce and thought to have been solved when Nordmann fir took over as the preferred Christmas tree. But if growers are forced to cut trees as early as late October to satisfy market demands, then needle drop two months later over the Christmas holiday will be inevitable, irrespective of the tree species used.

However, even if the grower waits until the very last minute, they cannot win – especially if situated in southern England – because chances are that not a snowflake will fall from today’s December sky. And perversely so, given contemporary Christmas cards and other seasonal scenes picturing winter landscapes, holly berries, pine needles and robins are all accompanied by the traditional covering of snow, deep and crisp and even. Saturated with scenes like these but not seeing a single snow flake in the dark December sky, is it not reasonable for children to ask of their grandparents, “Did it really snow at Christmas time”? Perhaps these young, enquiring minds could be referred to the writings of English poet Christina Rosetti:

In the bleak midwinter,
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

From ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ by Christina Rosetti (1830–1894)

Finding it hard to answer this same question with any accuracy I consulted the diary of a well-known naturalist who recorded weather events some half a century before my time. Edith Holden from Solihull in Warwickshire, author of Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, recorded a white Christmas arriving with a vengeance in 1905. She wrote: “25 December 1906 – We woke to a snowy Christmas morning; sunshine later and a sharp frost at night; 26 December – Another heavy fall of snow in the night; 27 December – In the paper today it reports that all Britain lies under snow from John o’ Groats to Land’s End for the first time in six years. Nightly hard frosts continued to occur with snow on the ground until New Year’s Eve.”


Forestry Journal: This ancient oak with roots in the Enfield Chase forest has seen a lot of white Christmases, but not in recent yearsThis ancient oak with roots in the Enfield Chase forest has seen a lot of white Christmases, but not in recent years (Image: FJ)

Is there anything else that can be used to mark out the month of December? Having given thanks for ‘fruits from the field’ during the harvest festival in October, December is the time to say thank you for ‘fuel from the forest’. 

Logs burning merrily in the hearth, to warm and illuminate the room, is the classic scene most closely associated with December, indelibly ingrained in the national psyche, especially during the Christmas period. Open fires burning wood were clearly a life-saver for communities of centuries past, which can be seen from their prominent place in poetry and prose of bygone years.

Heap on more wood! – the wind is chill,
But let it whistle as it will
We’ll keep our Christmas merry still

Quote by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832)

The traditional December tale of logs burning in the open hearth became a story in its own right, used to compare the wood-burning profiles of different trees. Not only how fast and hot they burned, and if indeed they burned at all, but the sights, sounds and smells coming from the fireplace, as well as the best time to cut firewood and the extent and length of drying and seasoning required.

Forestry Journal:  Native Scots pine, apparently well at home in the snow. Native Scots pine, apparently well at home in the snow. (Image: FJ)

And you don’t have to search too far to find all this information in rhyme with its roots in the traditional street cries of wood vendors trying to sell their wares. The rhyme’s origins are probably too far back to identify with any accuracy, but were more recently formalised into poems and songs such as ‘Logs to burn the woodsman cries’ by Honor Goodhardt in 1920 and ‘The Firewood Poem’ by Lady Celia Congreve in 1930,  with a basic commentary that transcends all modern knowledge around combustibility, calorific value and curing requirements that underpins the contemporary firewood industry.

Oak logs will warm you well,
If they’re old and dry,
Larch logs of pine will smell,
But the sparks will fly.

Oak needs at least six months and sometimes up to two years of air drying before it is fully cured, and the older the wood, the drier it will be to start with. Nothing can beat the smell of burning pine logs, but the high frequency of knots in the wood causes the logs to spit and sparks to fly, as indicated in the rhyme. But ‘waste not, want not’ is the motto of Kevin Ross, a Suffolk woodsman who is surrounded by pine, both Corsican and Scots, and who told me how pine is okay to burn as long as you utilise the wood between the knots. Safe burning of larch, spruce and fir is not so easy, because the knots are more scattered, while fir wood knots are very small, says Kevin.

Ironically, old-time carpenters used a specific wood to solve potential problems created by spitting logs and flying sparks, not for burning but to make the house safe from fire. That part of the flooring in front of the fireplace was laid with black poplar, a native tree which thrived in the inherently wet areas of southern England like the marshy areas in Essex and Kent either side of the Thames Estuary. Black poplar is an inherently wet wood, which is difficult to dry and to burn. 

Prominent in the Christmas tradition was the yule log, ritually blessed to protect the house and its inhabitants, then traditionally burned in the fireplace on Christmas Eve. The yule log had to be big enough to burn all night long, ideally until Epiphany day, 12 days later. But from what native tree was the yule log cut? Archives claim oak was used in England and birch in Scotland, while in France it was cherry sprinkled with wine for extra sensory effect – cherry logs across the dogs, smell like flowers in bloom.

Forestry Journal: If there is one tree irrevocably associated with December and Christmas then it is English holly.If there is one tree irrevocably associated with December and Christmas then it is English holly. (Image: FJ)

However, others suggest that in later years the yule log was taken from the sweet chestnut tree, which certainly squares with lines from ‘The Woodman’s Cries’, which describe sweet chestnut’s slow wood-burning credentials.

Birch logs will burn too fast, 
Chestnut scarce at all.

Otherwise, the old woodman recommended ‘beech logs for Christmas time’, because the logs burn bright and clear if they are kept a year, as described in the ‘The Firewood Poem’.

But best praise of all was reserved for common ash:

Ash logs all smooth and grey.
Burn them green or old;
Buy up all that come your way,
They’re worth their weight in gold.

This is another feather in the cap for the beleaguered common ash, clearly the most versatile tree and timber producer on the landscape. However, with Chalara ash dieback disease continuing its lethal rampage the advice is clear – burn common ash while you can, because it may soon be rare.


Forestry Journal: Everybody’s idea of Christmas, now happening with a decreasing frequency.Everybody’s idea of Christmas, now happening with a decreasing frequency. (Image: FJ)

The last day of December is the final day of the old year, a coincidence not lost on Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In his inimitable style which traditionally combined sobriety, sorrow and sadness, Tennyson wrote at length about the event in his poetry, in words so characteristically depressing it might have tempted some of his contemporaries to reach for the flintlock pistol. However, on this odd occasion Tennyson followed up with a forward-looking and happier verse about the New Year, allowing the pistol to be put back in the oak box complete with its prominent brass screws, until the next December.

Full knee-deep lies the winter snow,
And the winter winds are wearily sighing,
Toll ye the church-bell sad and slow,
And tread softly and speak low,
For the old year lies a-dying...
And waiteth at the door,
There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend,
And a new face at the door, my friend,
A new face at the door.

From ‘Death of the Old Year’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–92)