The History of the Christmas Tree Farm and Where to Find the Perfect Tree

Four Winds Christmas Tree Farm in Los Gatos, CA dusted with snow. Photo courtesy of Four Winds Christmas Trees.
Four Winds Christmas Tree Farm in Los Gatos, CA dusted with snow. Photo courtesy of Four Winds Christmas Trees.

Every December my Dad and I would drive the ten minutes up the road to trudge uphill in the snow through wavering lines of spruce, fir and pine. Dad and I would search tirelessly for the perfect Christmas tree: about 6-8 feet tall, the branches growing in evenly spaced whorls at a slight upward angle with just enough room between each one to hang ornaments but not too much so as to appear sparse. (This was a serious endeavor!)

When we found the one, Dad would begin sawing away at its slender silver trunk, the needles quivering with every pass of the jagged blade. Finally, the chosen tree’s top would begin to sway earthwards and with a loud CReeEAAak! this symbol of Christmas would fall to the ground. Soon the chosen evergreen would be covered in lights and generations worth of ornaments, creating a feeling of holiday cheer throughout the house.

Why Your Christmas Tree is Pagan

The tradition of cutting your own tree has been around since the 16th century but up until the 1850s in the United States, displaying a Christmas tree in your living room was viewed as a pagan act. Ancient peoples brought evergreen boughs into the home after the winter solstice to celebrate the new life that was soon to come with the spring. Puritans in New England went so far as to outlaw decorating and caroling because there was no Scriptural basis for the holiday.

The Christmas Tree, by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911, depicts a Christmas tree before the days of electricity.
The Christmas Tree, by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911. A Christmas tree before the days of electricity.

The Christmas tree tradition began in Germany and also started as an homage to the coming spring. The freshly cut trees were decorated with apples and nuts rather than candy canes and multi-colored lights. A German Protestant reformer was the first to adorn his tree with lit candles, emulating stars twinkling through the treetops in a forest. It was, not surprisingly, a family of German settlers in Pennsylvania who first introduced the decorated tree to America in 1830. Still, it wasn’t until a few years after 1846, when Queen Victoria’s husband Albert displayed a Christmas tree in their palace, that it became commonplace for American families to eschew Puritan rules and display their own trees.

The First Christmas Tree Farm

As you can imagine, the Christmas tree farm didn’t exist in the 1800s and neither did plastic trees covered in fake snow. If you wanted your own tannenbaum, you put on your snow boots and heavy jacket and took a walk through the woods. The problem was the seemingly endless acres of forest weren’t so endless. By the year 1900, the evergreens were few and far between, but families still wanted their fresh cut tree.

The first Christmas tree farm sprung up in 1901 in New Jersey and soon others followed suit. Families could now pick out a pre-cut tree brought conveniently to town for them. But most families still chose to hike out into the wild woods and cut down their own tree, probably because they loved the tradition, and the pre-cut trees were often dry and looked rather, well, dead.

There are almost 15,000 Christmas tree farms covering 350,000 acres in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Four Winds Christmas Trees in Los Gatos, CA.
There are almost 15,000 Christmas tree farms covering 350,000 acres in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of Four Winds Christmas Trees in Los Gatos, CA.

The Birth of ‘Choose and Cut’ on Skyline Ridge

In the early 1950s, a man named Julius Ducca decided to replant his Christmas tree farm on the Skyline Ridge above the Santa Clara Valley in California. He planned to do what he’d always done: harvest the trees and haul them to town. Instead, when a man stopped by the farm and offered to pay Ducca for a chance to cut down his own tree, the entrepreneur decided to try the first “choose and cut” model within easy access to Santa Clara Valley. His farm was such a success, that miles of cars lined Skyline Boulevard, inching along for the chance to cut their own tree.

A long line of families waiting to cut fresh Christmas trees at Skyline Ranch in 1965. Photograph courtesy of Hans Johsens.
A long line of families waiting to cut fresh Christmas trees at Skyline Ranch in 1965. Photograph courtesy of Hans Johsens.

After enjoying success for many years, Ducca convinced the owner of Skyline Ranch, William Wasserman, to convert his open grasslands (then used for grain production and cattle grazing) to a Christmas tree farm. Planted in 1960, Skyline Ranch became the largest choose and cut tree farm in California at 200 acres. Families came from miles around to choose from 50,000 Douglas firs, white firs, Monterey pines, Scotch pines and sequoias. Now a part of the Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, Skyline Ranch Tree Farm remains the largest farm in the area that still welcomes families to walk among its pines and firs on their tireless quest for the perfect tree.

Atop the spine of the San Francisco Bay peninsula. Photo by  Peter Kaminski.
Christmas trees on top the spine of the San Francisco Bay peninsula in 2005. Photo by Peter Kaminski.

From Orchards to Evergreens

Through the 1980s the fruit orchards on Skyline Ridge transitioned to almost exclusively evergreens. Now, some of the open space preserve is being restored to native oak woodlands. Don’t worry though, there are still plenty of choose-and-cut tree farms along Skyline Ridge and in surrounding areas. Crest Ranch, in Santa Cruz County, is the oldest operating choose and cut farm in the San Francisco Bay Area (opened in 1948) and there are plenty more tree farms to choose from. In fact, throughout the U.S., there are almost 15,000 choose-and-cut tree farms covering 350,000 acres! So, no need to buy a pre-cut or fake tree this year. Get on your boots — it’s time to go tree hunting!

The orchard at Whalens' Castle Rock Ranch before it was converted to a Christmas Tree Plantation, December 1936. Photo from the collection of Janet Schwind. Photographer unknown.
The orchard at Whalens’ Castle Rock Ranch before it was converted to a Christmas Tree Plantation, December 1936. Photo from the collection of Janet Schwind.
Photographer unknown.

To help you on your quest to find the perfect tree, below is a list of just a few of the Christmas tree farms still active around the Santa Clara Valley today.

For a full list of all the Christmas tree farms in California, visit:

http://www.cachristmas.com/real-tree-choose-cut.html

Not in California?

Visit the National Christmas Tree Association website to search for tree farms in your area.

Tree farms on Skyline Ridge:

Skyline Ranch:  http://www.bayareachristmastreefarms.com/skyline.asp
Four Winds Christmas Trees:  http://www.four-winds-ranch.com/
Frosty’s Christmas Tree Farm:  http://www.frostyschristmastreefarm.com/
JS Tabacco Ranch:   http://www.jstabaccoranch.com/
McKenzie Ranch:  http://mckenzietreefarm.com/

Other Tree Farms in Santa Clara County:

Battaglia Ranch:  http://www.battagliaranch.com/
Black Road Christmas Tree Farms:  http://www.christmas-tree-farms.com/index.html
Peacock Tree Farm:  http://www.peacocktreefarm.com/
Patchen California:  http://www.patchencalifornia.com/
Lone Star Tree Farm:  http://www.bayareachristmastreefarms.com/lonestar.asp
Summit Tree Farm:  http://www.summittreefarm.com/

Tree Farms in Santa Cruz County

Crest Ranch:  http://www.crestranch.com/
Ward Ranch:  http://www.ward-ranch.com/

Further Resources

The history of the Skyline Ridge Tree farms came from a great new book about the Skyline region of the Santa Cruz Mountains, California called The South Skyline Story by Janet Schwind and the Skyline Historical Society, 2014. It is a well written, fun and informative read from the Native Americans, through the early loggers and ranchers, commune dwellers, wine makers, conservationists and homebuilders. You can get a copy at Alice’s Restaurant in Skylonda (the junction of Highways 35 and 84) or by contacting Skyline History President Chuck Schoppe, email: chuck_sch@hotmail.com or phone: 408-867-9229.

  1. Sources Used

    • Christmas Trees Became a Tradition in the 19th Century by Robert McNamara. About.com website.
      http://history1800s.about.com/od/popularentertainment/a/History-of-Christmas-Trees.htm
    • History of Christmas Trees by the Rocks Christmas Tree Farm, Bethlehem, NH. National Christmas Tree Association website. http://www.realchristmastrees.org/dnn/education/historyofchristmastrees.aspx
    • History of Christmas Trees. History website. http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees
    • The South Skyline Story. Janet Schwind and the Skyline Historical Society. Skyline Historical Society; 2014.
    • Thirteen acres in Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve restored. Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. December 15, 2010.http://www.openspace.org/CGI-BIN/press_releases/101215_SkylineRdgRestorationPR.pdf

About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Cindy Weiss

    Way cool to read about this. So I grew up with a Christmas Tree farm in my backyard (Burlingame) and did not know it. We bought our tree at a lot in Burlingame one week before Christmas, usually on a Sunday after Church. It was a tradition I loved. But I would have loved a trip to the farm to cut one down even better. Now that is the best! When I started my own family,we moved to Siskiyou County, and went to the Cascades to the east to cut our holiday tree down. That was our young family’s tradition…so special! The hot chocolate and cookies that we brought along always tasted the best! We’ve abandoned that tradition now but always will remember those outings with fondness.

    Reply
    1. Ranger Lautamo

      Thanks for sharing, Cindy! That’s pretty cool you had a Christmas tree farm in your backyard. I loved cutting down a tree with my dad every year when I was a kid but since I no longer live at home, my sister took over that tradition years ago. I will definitely always cherish those memories. Thanks so much for reading the piece and glad you enjoyed it!

      Reply

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