Stateline Story

'O Christmas Tree' More Than a Carol in Some States

  • December 24, 2003
  • By Kathleen Murphy

Someone may be eyeing your Christmas tree -- and it isn't Santa Claus.

It's your state government, at least if you reside in one of those states from Rhode Island to Oregon that regulate Christmas tree usage in one way or another, from how you buy it to how you dispose of it and, especially, where you can put it up and trim it.

From fire marshals to forestry divisions, state officials often have the last word in the tradition of mounting live, decorated trees that dates back through ancient Rome and even to Egyptian times. Here in America, state governments have had plenty of time to find a regulatory role. The Christmas tree gained popularity during the mid-1800s when decorated evergreens appeared all over Philadelphia, and Catskill farmers hauled sleds of trees into New York City to make an extra penny.

Of course, this being the season for heartwarming stories, the situation occasionally gets reversed and citizens watch over the state. Take Illinois, where budget woes threatened to cancel this year's Old State Capitol tree-trimming because no state money was available to buy the tree. Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was nonetheless able to light up a beauty donated by the Illinois Nurserymen's Association.

"We're always looking for more exposure to major policy decision-makers, and this is a perfect in' and a perfect fit for every state association to do, so hopefully we've started a trend. It's Christmas, and when your governor asks you do to something, you're more than happy to help," said Dave Bender, executive director of the Illinois Nurserymen's Association.

But for the most part, when it comes to Christmas trees, it's the state watching over the citizen.

Buy a tree in New Mexico, for example, and you must get a valid bill of sale if it was taken from private property. The receipt should prove the tree was cut lawfully and describe the merchandise, said Dan Ware, forestry division spokesman. And that's an easing of the previous requirement. New Mexico repealed a law in the 1990s that required every Christmas tree chopped down on private land to carry a tag assuring it was cut with the owner's permission.

Virginia kicked up a Grinch-like controversy this year when it proposed to ban live, decorated trees in apartment complexes and condos that lack sprinkler systems. The goal, of course, was to prevent fires sparked in dry trees by space heaters, tree lights or other ignition sources.

State fire and housing officials lifted the ban under public pressure. But Virginia still bans real Christmas trees in churches, schools, department stores and meeting halls that lack sprinkler systems.

The city of Providence, R.I., adheres to a similarly strict code, but the statehouse won a variance in order to display a live tree in the century-old capitol that lacks sprinklers.

However, Rhode Island, which adopted the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) latest code revisions, will get even stricter next year by banning cut trees in the statehouse and most other places of public assembly with or without sprinklers. "No one wants to be the person who has to say, take the trees out.' But that's the law," said George Farrell, deputy fire marshal in Providence and chairman of the Rhode Island Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review.

Fire codes affecting Christmas trees vary widely. Some codes are adopted statewide while others differ by local jurisdiction.

As in Rhode Island, various editions of NFPA's code book have been adopted in Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Another 15 states -- Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming -- use the International Fire Code (IFC) statewide.

"States choose which portion of the code book to adopt and enforce," said Rick Dungey, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, the organization that provided the Fraser fir for the White House Blue Room this year.

Oregon, for example, permits trees in buildings without sprinklers, but bans large trees in patients' rooms at health care facilities under its fire code. And that's in America's Christmas tree capital, where farmers sold more than $160 million worth of trees in 2002. North Carolina, Washington, Michigan, and Ohio also were top tree producers, according to federal statistics.

State laws also can affect a tree's fate when needles start to pile up on the floor. With states such as Iowa requiring that landfills reduce amounts of green waste, some local jurisdictions have created Christmas tree recycling programs.

Consumers in every state can locate the nearest recycling program by clicking here or calling 1-800-CLEANUP.

In any event, some states exhibit a gentler Christmas spirit year round. Four of them -- Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, and New Jersey -- use the melody of O Tannenbaum (English translation: O Christmas Tree) for their state song.