Posted 3rd Dec 2012
The tradition of a Christmas tree has its roots in more than just the ground, for the Smith family it's their history and livelihood
The Fred Smith Christmas tree farm in Colchester had humble beginnings some 51 years ago in an almost storybook beginning. It all happened by chance in 1961 when an elderly man offered Fred Smith some Christmas trees to grow. Eventually Fred was approached to sell his newly-grown trees, which he did for around nine pence per foot. As the trees grew so did his venture and half a century later the Fred Smith Christmas tree farm is growing several thousands trees with an impressive three generations of Smith's helping out.
The simple tree to which the Smith's owe their livelihood is steeped in a rich history. A much-loved festive icon for centuries, the Christmas tree is often considered the centrepiece of the festive season. Its history in Britain lies very much with the royal family, though there is some argument over its true origins.
Legend has it that the Christmas tree became just that in the eighth century, when a Saint from Devonshire, St Boniface, went to Germany to teach the word of God. It is believed that St Boniface witnessed a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree, an act he claimed was blasphemous. In a fury he hacked down the old tree, all the while trying to convert the pagans to believe in God. It is thought that a fir tree grew in the oak's place and from then on became known as God's tree and a symbol of Christianity.
The history of the Christmas tree in England, however, is believed to have started much later with Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III. Queen Charlotte put up the first known British Christmas tree at the Queen's Lodge in Windsor in 1800, in preparation for a Christmas party she was hosting. Queen Charlotte decided that a special treat would be to put up an entire Yew tree, rather than the customary bough, and decorate it with candles, sweetmeats, fruit, nuts and toys for all her guests to enjoy.
However, the Christmas tree wasn't to become popular until some years later when, in 1848, an illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children, standing around a decorated Spruce Fir, was published in the Illustrated London News. The royals had sparked a tradition and soon wealthy upper-class families all over Britain were sporting lavishly decorated trees each Christmas. The Christmas tree was a luxury and became a status symbol, with bigger trees and those decorated with glass ornaments considered to be the most prestigious.
Nowadays the Christmas tree is something most homes aren't seen without and a glass bauble or two is no stranger to its branches. Traditions are still firmly in place with the unbeatable sight and smell of a real Christmas tree more popular than ever, as Fred Smith and his family know all too well.
Fred's son, Tim, now heads the family business, working hard all year round to grow the best possible Christmas trees, a bounty of mistletoe and even producing their own homegrown apple juice which they sell by the bottle all year round.
The Essex-based farm grows two species of tree, the classic Norway Spruce and the newly popular Nordman Fir, with a fresh batch of trees planted every October. Growing a tree might sound simple enough, but in actual fact it's a pain-stakingly long process. The trees are notorious slow-growers, taking up to six years for a Norway Spruce to reach 6ft and around twelve years for a Nordman Fir to come anywhere near. Tim and his son spend much of spring pruning and caring for trees of every size, from some barely a foot high to others towering over twenty.
Tim is a strong believer in natural care, never using chemicals on the trees, instead allowing nature to do its job and recycling the trees as firewood once they have served their purpose. The care doesn't stop there though, the trees require continuous pruning, shaping and weeding, and in particularly rainy seasons grooves must be cut into their trunk to slow them from growing too quickly and going out of shape. All of this is done by hand by Tim and his family, and in a farm with thousands of trees it's no easy feat.
From November onwards Tim's children spend time away from their day jobs to help prepare the Fred Smith farm for Christmas. It's a true family affair as Tim's 85-year-old father, Fred, answers phones and helps the customers whilst Tim's 76-year-old mother, Maureen, and his wife Beverley make their home-made Christmas wreaths in the farm's very own workshop. From carrying out the last bit of tree care to painting the shovels used to dig up the trees, no detail is missed in the flurry of work leading up to the main event.
By the end of November the hard work has paid off, with gorgeous trees of all shapes and sizes proudly displayed in the farm's yard. People from all over the country come to choose their tree and many of the local schools, churches and businesses are supplied with a Fred Smith Christmas tree as well. Visitors to the farm can watch the holly wreaths being made in the open-fronted workshop and can even pick up fresh seasonal veg in the barn. One Sunday during December the farm is alive with Christmas cheer as the Boxted Methodist Silver Band come and play Christmas carols live in the yard for all to enjoy.
The Fred Smith Christmas Tree Farm is open from the end of November, 7 days a week from 9am-6pm.
West View, 61 Straight Road
Read the rest of this feature on p.36 of the November/December 2012 issue...
By Natalie Mason