It's the focal point of many homes decorated for the holidays. Branches laden with lights and presents strewn beneath its green canopy, the Christmas tree beckons holiday cheer and delight.
According to legend, it was Martin Luther who began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. As he was walking through snow-covered woods one Christmas Eve around the year 1500, he was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens whose branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors and decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ's birth.
The tradition has continued and the annual selection and decoration of Christmas trees often highlights and ignites the holiday season.
Despite an unseasonably warm summer, drought-like conditions and Superstorm Sandy -- all of which threatened this year's crop of trees -- Chris Ballas, manager of Mussers Forests Inc. in Indiana County, said they look better than usual.
"We had the rain when we needed it in the beginning and toward the end," he said. "Everything looks good."
Nestled in the self-proclaimed "Christmas Tree Capital of the World," the nursery was established in 1928 on 600 acres of abandoned farm land in Indiana County and now sells a wide variety of trees through their wholesale and retail operations.
With an extended season due to Thanksgiving coming a little earlier this year, Mr. Ballas said business has already been good.
"People are starting to get into the spirit," he said.
At Nutbrown's Christmas Tree Farm in Collier, the weather events took their toll on some of the crop. During the month of June, owner Henry Nutbrown said he lost 20 percent of the seedlings that he had transplanted in spring. Surprisingly, he said, the larger, more established trees fared well and even appear to have done better than last year.
Dappling his 13-acre choose-and-cut tree farm are Canaan, Concolor, Douglas and Fraser firs just waiting to fulfill their purpose this holiday season.
Most popular among his customers are Douglas and Fraser firs, which are noted for their soft needles, great pine scent and longevity.
Concolor firs, also called white firs, are also rising in popularity, he said, and cited the citrus fragrance that is emitted when their soft, blue-green needles are crushed as a draw.
Mr. Nutbrown said most customers arrive at his farm with a specific type of tree in mind and that it's not unusual for them to return to the first one they liked after walking the entire length of the plantation.
"Different people are looking for different things," he said. "Some people like fat trees, and some people like a tree that can create conversation when they have a party."
He recalled one customer who returned each year looking for the most unusual tree. He and his daughter would walk the entire farm and often chose ones that bent to the right or left.
Jack Grupp, owner of Grupp's Christmas Tree Farm in Harmony, said his mature trees had a good growing season as well -- but like Nutbrown's, he had serious issues with the seedlings he planted this spring and lost more than usual to the hot and dry conditions.
Mr. Grupp's sprawling 112-acre farm boasts a variety of fir, pine and spruce trees for his choose-and-cut customers. Most popular, he said, are fir trees, specifically Douglas, Canaan and Fraser.
"Everybody has an opinion of what that perfect tree looks like," he said. "Probably the hardest thing that anything could ask me to do would be to pick and cut a tree for them. It's such a personal choice."
The Grupp home this year will showcase a Canaan fir that Mr. Grupp said has just enough room underneath for presents and will comfortably allow his 10 grandchildren to stand around it.
For those who prefer not to cut their own Christmas tree, there are a variety of purveyors of fresh trees throughout the area such as Chapon's Greenhouse in Baldwin Borough. Owner Pete Chapon said people are getting a head start this year and that sales are already ahead of last year's at this time.
Fraser firs are their No. 1 seller, with Douglas, Noble and Concolor firs falling close behind.
To ensure live trees last through the holiday season, Mr. Chapon recommended cutting at least a half-inch to an inch off the bottom of the tree after bringing it home. This removes any plugs that may have formed on the bottom, which keep them from bringing water up from the base.
Adding an aspirin to the water is an old wives' tale, Mr. Chapon said, but he does recommend an additive for the water, which can be purchased at most garden centers, to help prolong the life of the tree.
With proper care and adequate watering, Mr. Chapon said a tree can last through the end of January.
No matter the type or size of tree chosen, Mr. Chapon said live, fresh-cut trees are still very popular among Western Pennsylvanians and for a simple reason.
"People want a real Christmas," he said.
Shannon Nass, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org First Published December 6, 2012 10:00 AM