Skip to main content

New York Agriculture in the Classroom

Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix

Lesson Plan

Discover Christmas Trees (Grades 3-5)

Grade Level
3 - 5

Students explore the history of the Christmas tree, explain the life cycle of a conifer, identify types of trees and how they adapt, discover what it's like to work on a Christmas tree farm, and examine the ecology of conifer trees. Grades 3-5

Estimated Time
Six 45-minute activities
Materials Needed

Activity 1: The History of the Christmas Tree

Activity 2: Getting a Sense of Conifers

Activity 3: Pines, Spruces, Firs, and More

  • Identifying Conifers activity sheet
  • Picture of a fir or spruce tree
  • Optional: Clippings from a pine, spruce, and fir tree—enough for students to work in pairs to identify them.
    • If you cannot obtain these clippings from local trees, ask the local florist if they have any. Many Christmas floral arrangements include evergreens.

Activity 4: Real or Artificial Christmas Trees?

Activity 5: A Four-Season Job

  • Internet or access to other research tools

Activity 6: Nutrient Cycling


conifer: a tree that bears cones and evergreen needlelike or scalelike leaves

Did You Know?
  • Artificial Christmas trees were developed in Germany during the 19th century and later became popular in the United States.1
  • Helicopters help to lift harvested Christmas trees from some farms.1
  • Live Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since about 1850.1
Background Agricultural Connections

This lesson contains multiple activities that can be completed in any order. You may also pick and choose which activities to complete to meet your classroom needs.

Christmas Tree Farming

Real Christmas trees are grown on farms just like any other agricultural crop. It takes 6-10 years for a farmer to grow a Christmas tree. Christmas trees are grown in most states. Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and New York rank highest in production. Visit the Interactive Map to see where your state ranks. Depending on your location, real Christmas trees can be obtained from natural forests where tree harvesting is allowed, directly from a local Christmas tree farm, or from local retail stores who market trees originally obtained from Christmas tree farms across the country. 

Science Behind the Christmas Tree

Traditional Christmas trees in the United States can be one of several varieties of conifers including fir, pine, spruce, cypress, or cedar. To learn more about each of these varieties, visit the Tree Varieties webpage from the National Christmas Tree Association website. Each of these tree varieties have unique colors, sizes, shapes, and needles. 

History of the Christmas Tree

Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death.

Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In Northern Europe, the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s, Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.

It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims’ second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived.

By the 1890s, Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany, and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.

The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country, and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.

  1. Ask the students to name a few things that farmers produce. Allow the students to raise their hands and name a few items. Once the students are actively thinking about what farmers grow/produce, tell them that you are going to play a guessing game and that you are going to give them some clues. Inform them that in some places farmers use a helicopter to harvest this product. What is it? Use the following clues:
    • It is harvested one time per year.
    • It is not a food crop.
    • It is not produced by animals. (If needed, help students conclude that it is produced by plants.)
    • It takes 6-10 years to grow.
    • It has needles instead of leaves.
    • It is primarily green and cone-shaped.
    • It is most associated with the Christmas holiday.
    • What is it? (a Christmas tree)
  2. Show the video clip of a helicopter tree harvest. Clarify that not all Christmas trees are harvested this way, but some are depending on the location of the farm.
  3. Ask students where they think the tradition of cutting and decorating evergreen trees in December comes from. Chances are, most will associate the tradition with the Christian holiday of Christmas.
Explore and Explain

Activity 1: The History of the Christmas Tree

  1. Give each student a copy of the History of the Christmas Tree handout. Ask them to read the handout and discuss the highlights of it together as they answer the following questions:
    • When did the tradition of cutting evergreen trees and boughs begin?
    • With what seasonal event does it coincide?
    • How did the tradition manifest in different cultures?
    • In what country did the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it begin?
    • Who is credited with popularizing the tradition?
  2. Note that German musicians have celebrated the steadfast qualities of evergreen trees in song since the 1500s, including the well-known O Tannenbaum, written by Ernst Anschütz in 1824. The German word, Tannenbaum, translates into English as “fir tree” (die Tanne) or Christmas tree (der Weihnachtsbaum).
  3. Listen to O Tannenbaum, sung by the Vienna Boys Choir, available on YouTube.
  4. Discuss how the ideas reflect the centuries-old connection between evergreens and themes of eternity, hope, and renewal.
  5. Then, using the O Tannenbaum Lyrics handout, have students read the two English variations of those literally translated lyrics, adapted to rhyme and fit the melody of the German tune.
  6. Ask your students to write their own version of the song, incorporating the basic ideas from the original song into a tune of their choosing (could be rap, rock, bluegrass, country, etc). Encourage them to work in small groups. They should provide a recording (or a link to a recording) of the original song (unless it’s universally known, like America the Beautiful). Consider offering extra credit for in-class performance and musical instrument accompaniment!

Activity 2: Getting a Sense of Conifers

  1. Begin by asking your students how trees survive the dark, dry, cold months of winter. Every fall, many trees, like maples and oaks, lose their leaves and stand bare all winter long. However, conifers are far different. Except for a very few species—like the American larch, which loses all its needles in fall like a deciduous tree—conifers keep most of their leaves throughout the year and stay green throughout the cold winter months.
  2. Give each student one copy of the Design a Winter-Proof Conifer activity sheet. Explain that scientists have studied conifers to learn about how their features help them survive the winter. Your students can ponder this on their own as they complete the activity sheet.
  3. After completing the worksheet, explain that conifers have many amazing characteristics that help them survive and thrive in a tremendous variety of climates around the world, from coastal rain forests to the frigid northern reaches of Siberia.
  4. Have students complete the activity sheet, Surviving Winter- The Advantages of Being a Conifer with your help if needed. (See the Teacher's Key found in the Essential Files).

Activity 3: Pines, Spruces, Firs, and More

  1. Show your students a picture of a fir or spruce tree and ask them what it is. Chances are, they’ll call it a pine tree. You’d be amazed how many children’s books do the same! There are dozens of species of evergreen trees both native and introduced, and only a handful of those are actually pines. Welcome to the world of conifers—fir, spruce, juniper, cedar, cypress, larch, pine, and more!
  2. Introduce your students to a simple, handy, alliterative phrase they can use to differentiate among conifer types. “Pine needles come in packets. Spruce needles are square. Fir needles are flat and friendly.” Or an even quicker way to remember it: “Pines come in packets, spruces are square, firs are flat and friendly.” This phrase relates to the shared characteristics of trees in each of these three main groupings of conifers. Pines share the characteristic that their needles grow in packets or bundles, called “fascicles." Spruce needles are square in cross-section, so when you roll one in your fingers, you’ll notice the bump-bump-bump of the squared sides. Fir needles are flat, and when you grab a fir branch, it’s soft to the touch, not prickly like pines and spruces. This phrase over-simplifies the real-life story of diversity in the forest, since, for instance, there are conifer species like Eastern hemlock that have flat needles but aren’t firs, but it’s a great starting point.
  3. Provide a hands-on opportunity for your students to see and identify different species of conifer. Choose one of the following activities:
    • Field Trip to a Christmas Tree Farm: If possible, have students work in small groups to identify as many different species of conifers as possible during their site visit, using the Identifying Conifers activity sheet. Ask the Christmas tree farmer to explain his or her reasons for growing the particular conifer species found on this farm. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? What challenges does each species offer, from planting through harvest?
      • Tip: If there aren't any Christmas tree farms in your area, your local park or even your school grounds may have a variety of conifer species that your students could observe.
    • In-class Conifer Activity: Bring as many samples of conifer tree boughs as you can find. Have students sit together in pairs, and give each pair a clipping of pine, spruce, and fir. Talk through the process of noticing the needle packets on the pine twig, the square needles on the spruce twig, and the flat, soft (not prickly) needles of the fir. 
      • Optional: Add an art project to this activity by helping students make a small wreath or another Christmas decoration with the evergreen clippings.

Activity 4: Real or Artificial Christmas Trees?

  1. Introduce this activity by discussing how every day we make choices that have both direct and indirect impacts on our personal lives, our communities, and the world around us. For example: Should I buy bread baked at the local bakery or commercial bread from the supermarket? Should I carry that bread home in a plastic or paper bag, or in a reusable cloth bag brought from home? Should I hang my wet laundry on a drying rack or put it in an electric dryer? Though we don’t often take the time to carefully list and weigh the pros and cons of these choices, it can be eye-opening to do so. What real differences do our choices make?
  2. Tell the students that today they’ll be considering the question of real versus artificial Christmas trees. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, in the United States in 2012, people bought roughly 24.5 million real conifers and 10.9 million artificial Christmas trees. Which kind is better? What are the costs and benefits, the pros and cons, of each?
  3. Remind your students that “better” is a subjective term. Better for what? In this activity, they’ll be considering the question in terms of whether it is better for:
    • The air we breathe
    • The water we drink
    • The soil
    • Local farmers
    • Plants and wildlife
    • My community
    • Myself
    • My family
  4. Give each of your students a copy of the blank Real or Artificial? activity sheet.
  5. Have them complete the activity sheet on their own or in small groups, either through in-class or take-home research. Then have them discuss their findings as a whole class, and encourage respectful debate.
  6. When the discussion is complete, ask students to decide, based on their overall findings, whether they think real or artificial trees are a better choice for people looking to purchase a Christmas tree. See the attached Teacher's Key for the Real or Artificial? activity sheet for more details.
  7. Have each student develop an advertisement poster for real or artificial Christmas trees, coming up with a slogan, marketing pitch, and price point. Have them present their posters to the class. When all have been presented, discuss the most effective strategies and pitches.

Activity 5: A Four-Season Job

  1. What are the characteristics of a picture-perfect Christmas tree? (conical, bushy, fully green, symmetrical.) On a Christmas tree farm, farmers put a great deal of time and effort into nurturing these qualities. It takes a lot of work because natural elements, like fire, wind, snow, ice, insects, and diseases, tend to shape the tree differently.
  2. White pine weevils, for instance, kill the terminal shoot (top of the main stem) of white pines, which causes one or more side branches to grow upwards and assume the role of terminal shoot, greatly changing the shape of the tree. Perpetual high winds can cause “Krummholz,” the deformation and stunting of conifers. And that’s just for starters. The list of natural elements that can damage conifers and reduce the economic value of Christmas trees is extensive.
  3. Have each student pick an insect, disease, or other natural event (wind, ice, fire) and research its effect on conifers. These effects may be dramatically different for different conifer species. If your student chooses a complex element like fire, which has vastly different effects on different species, you might suggest that they limit their research to just one species (for instance, researching how Jack pines are shaped by fire).
  4. Then have students create a 5-minute presentation on their findings. Encourage them to create visual aids that will illustrate their findings.
  5. Have students share their presentations with their classmates.

Activity 6: Nutrient Cycling

  1. Communities across the country are practicing innovative ways to recycle and reuse Christmas trees. Take a look at the National Christmas Tree Association website with your students and read together about more than a dozen great ways to recycle and reuse Christmas trees, from fortifying sand dunes to creating fish habitat in ponds and rivers.
  2. Make inquiries with your town or city hall to find out what programs your community has in place to recycle or reuse Christmas trees.
  3. Share and discuss these existing strategies with your students.
  4. Have your students work in small groups to develop a proposal for a new and different way to utilize discarded Christmas trees in your town. Their proposal should describe the project’s vision and rationale for your particular community. It should also consider the opportunities and constraints involved of implementing the program in terms of economics, labor, logistics, environmental concerns, and so on.
  5. Have students present their project proposals to their classmates.
  • View the Christmas Tree: How Does it Grow? video to learn more about how Christmas trees are grown and harvested.

  • The Tree Book, by Gina Ingoglia, is a good resource for this age group, with information on buds, bark, seeds, leaves, fruit, photosynthesis, characteristics of conifers and deciduous trees, and more.

  • View the Christmas Tree Farm video to visit the largest Christmas tree farm in the world and learn how to tell the difference between the three main types of Christmas trees.

  • Introduce the idea of the dichotomous key as a tool for honing in on the identification of plants and animals through a very fun kids’ game, Guess Who? (created by Hasbro), designed for ages 6 and up.

  • Conduct the activity, Growing Up Evergreen to teach students how conifers grow from cone to maturity.

  • Conduct the Value-adding on a Christmas Tree Farm activity.

  • Visit the Teacher's Corner on the National Christmas Tree Association website for more activities and information.

  • View the 360 video ExplOregon Agriculture - Christmas Tree Harvest to learn more about how Christmas trees are grown and harvested. This video is best viewed using a virtual reality (VR) viewing device, but can also be viewed on a computer, smart phone, or tablet without a VR viewer. VR viewers are available for purchase at


After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following concepts:

  • Christmas trees are classified as conifers. They do not lose their needles in the winter.
  • Christmas trees grow naturally in forests, but they can also be grown and harvested from farms.
  • It takes 8-10 years to grow a Christmas tree on a farm.
Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York
Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York
We welcome your feedback! If you have a question about this lesson or would like to report a broken link, please send us an email. If you have used this lesson and are willing to share your experience, we will provide you with a coupon code for 10% off your next purchase at AgClassroomStore.