This lesson is composed of six learning activities to teach about the Christmas tree. Science, history, and geography topics are used to explore the history of the Christmas tree, life cycle of a conifer, types of trees and how they adapt, work on a Christmas tree farm, and the ecology of conifer trees.
Pictures of a deciduous tree and a coniferous tree.
Tell me, Tree by Gail Gibbons
Green construction paper
Scissors for students
White paper for drawing
Crayons or colored pencils
Activity 3: Pines, Spruces, Firs, and More
Picture of a fir or spruce tree
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.
Note, You will not need a tree key for this activity, but if you would like to have one for your own reference, then a very good, simple one is Tree Finder: A Manual for the Identification of Trees by their Leaves, by May Theilgaard Watts.
Activity 4: Real or Artificial Christmas Trees?
Shel Silverstein’s poem, Peckin’
This poem can be read from the book A Light in the Attic or accessed online through a Google search
Poster paper, 3’ x 5-6’
Paint for Christmas tree
Art paper for students
Art materials for student projects—very flexible (see activity directions), could be crayons, colored pencils, markers, and/or natural items like dried seeds, bits of cones, etc.
Activity 5: A Four-Season Job
Christmas Farm by Mary Lyn Ray
Christmas Tree Farm by Sandra Jordan
If you can get both books, do so. One is fiction, the other non-fiction, so it provides an opportunity for you to compare the two writing styles.
conifer: a tree that bears cones and evergreen needlelike or scalelike leaves
Did you know? (Ag Facts)
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 farms.1
Live Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since about 1850.1
Background Agricultural Connections
Interest Approach – Engagement
Begin by asking students to describe what the world around them is like in winter time. They may come up with words like cold, dark, snowy, icy, dead, quiet, nothing growing, etc.
Read aloud the story The Littlest Christmas Tree, which introduces the lyrics to the historic song, “Oh Christmas Tree."
Building from the lyrics to the song, summarize with students some of the history of the Christmas tree (information found in the Background Agricultural Connections section of the lesson). Point out that people have, for centuries, seen the Christmas tree as a symbol of life and hope during this cold, dark, seemingly lifeless time of year—a reminder that spring will come again.
Activity 1: The History of the Christmas Tree
Explain to students that a good way to lift your spirits at any time of year is by singing and making music, and that musicians have written many pieces of music to celebrate the hopeful qualities of evergreen trees. In Germany, these songs date back to the 1500s, including the well-known O Tannenbaum, written by Ernst Anschütz in 1824. Your students may have heard of its English version, O Christmas Tree. The German word, Tannenbaum, translates into English as “fir tree” (die Tanne) or Christmas tree (der Weihnachtsbaum).
Listen to O Tannenbaum, sung by the Vienna Boys Choir, available on YouTube.
Using the attached O Tannenbaum Lyrics handout, read the literal English translation aloud to your students and discuss together the following questions:
Why does the poet describe the Christmas tree’s branches as “loyal?"
The lyricist, Ernst Anschütz, says that the Christmas tree, with its evergreen branches, gives him hope. Why might this be so?
What is the lesson that the poet thinks the Christmas tree can teach him?
Activity 2: Getting a Sense of Conifers
Talk with your students about what it must be like to live outside all the time in winter, exposed to cold and snow and ice. Ask, "How do animals adapt to winter? What about plants?"
Ask your students how trees in winter are different from trees in summer. What do trees do to survive the cold and snow and ice of winter? Chances are, they’ll say they lose their leaves. That’s right, but only for some trees.
Encourage them to think about other trees they know. Explain that many trees are “evergreens” and keep their leaves all year long. These kinds of trees have some very different characteristics compared to deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves).
Read Tell Me, Tree, by Gail Gibbons, to your students. This picture book offers an excellent introduction to trees—their parts (buds, bark, seeds, leaves, fruit), functions (how they grow, photosynthesis), characteristics of conifers and deciduous trees, and more.
Show students the pictures of a deciduous tree and a coniferous tree, and ask them to name some of the traits of each kind of tree. This will help them incorporate the information you shared with them in Tell me, Tree.
Have your students cut out different shapes from green construction paper (circle, square, triangle, rectangle), and ask your students which shape might work best for a tree living in a climate that gets lots of snow, and why.
Have them draw and color a picture of a conifer in winter, along with the animals that might find food and shelter in the tree.
Activity 3: Pines, Spruces, Firs, and More
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!
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.
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.
You may only have time and resources for the in-class portion of this activity, but if you can, take your students to a nearby Christmas tree farm where all the conifers are just the right height for kids to touch and study, and where you can carry out a number of the activities described in this lesson.
As you explore the farm, or your school yard, have students identify each different tree species you encounter as pine, spruce, or fir. Collect a few, small twig clippings (with the tree farmer’s permission, of course!) of the conifers your students discover, and have them create a display poster back in the classroom. How many different kinds of conifers did they find?
Activity 4: Real or Artificial Christmas Trees?
Read Shel Silverstein’s poem, Peckin’, to your students. The poem offers a funny look at a not-so-funny notion, that artificial trees offer none of the life-giving functions and values of real trees. Some questions you might ponder with your students:
Why does the poet think that the bird pecking on the plastic tree is the saddest thing he’s ever seen?
What’s so sad about it?
What do woodpeckers get from real trees? (Food (insects), nesting sites (woodpeckers make holes that they and many other animals nest in), and oxygen to breath. Plus, seeds that grow new trees that will support the great-great-great-off spring of today’s wood peckers.)
Make a big (life-size if possible) poster of a Christmas tree. Use a big sheet of poster paper. You can have students draw and paint the Christmas tree if time allows, or you can paint it and have it ready to go for the activity.
Have your students brainstorm together all of the living and non-living parts of their world (specific animals, people, plants, soil, air, water, fungus, insects, etc) that benefit from a real Christmas tree—before it’s cut, after it’s cut, after it dies, and after it decays and becomes part of the soil.
Give each student a small (for example, 6”x6”) piece of paper on which to illustrate one of these living or non-living elements, with whatever artistic materials you’d like them to use. This could simply be traditional art materials like crayons, paint, cut-out paper, and so on, or it could be natural materials that they gather, like dried seeds, bits of cones, pebbles and so on, that they glue onto the paper.
Have them attach their creations to the Christmas tree, so that it is decorated with the community of life it supports.
Activity 5: A Four-Season Job
Ask your students when they think Christmas tree farmers are busy working on their farm. Explain that although December is the big sales month on a Christmas tree farm, caring for Christmas trees is a year-round job.
What work do your students think is involved in growing and selling Christmas trees?
Spring is the time to test and prepare the soil and carefully plant the seedlings. In spring and early summer, tree farmers shear the older trees, to promote bushier growth and the classic conical shape.
Throughout the warm-weather months of summer, they watch for insects and disease, and treat them as needed. In New York State, older trees rarely need watering, but seedlings might need irrigation during summer dry spells. Throughout the growing season, farmers mow and/or use herbicides to keep down grass and weeds between and under the trees, which compete for nutrients and can kill the lower branches of the trees.
In fall, farmers who plan to sell living conifers, which customers can plant after Christmas, dig up those trees and wrap their roots in burlap.
In late November, Christmas tree harvest begins.
Introduce your students to the year-round work involved in raising Christmas trees by reading them two great picture books:
Christmas Farm, is a fictional story by Mary Lyn Ray. This beautiful and engaging book tells the story of Wilma, who plants a Christmas tree farm—sixty-two dozen balsam fir seedlings, to be exact—with the help of Parker, her five-year-old neighbor. Year after year, Wilma and Parker carefully nurture the trees, weeding and trimming and keeping careful count of how many survive each year. Finally, the year comes when the trees are cut and sold, and the cycle begins again. The final page of the book offers a well-written background history of Christmas trees.
Christmas Tree Farm, by Sandra Jordan is a non-fiction book which tells, in words and photos, the true story of Janice and Leo Clark, who own a Christmas tree farm in Rhode Island and describes how they tend the trees throughout the year.
Talk with your students about how trees go through many different phases. Christmas trees, and conifers in general, support a tremendous diversity of plant and animal life while they are alive. In the natural world, they continue to provide food and shelter to many species long after they die, whether as standing snag, fallen log, or decaying humus.
What about the 25-30 million Christmas trees that are cut each year to decorate people’s homes? In years past, these might have ended up in a landfill, their valuable resources wasted and the nutrient cycle broken. But times have changed, and communities across the country are coming up with innovative ways to reuse and recycle Christmas trees.
Read The Life Cycle of a Tree by Bobbie Kalman to your students. This engaging book describes and illustrates how a tree evolves from seed to seedling to tree to humus, including such processes as pollination, how trees grow, and so on.
Have students act out the cycling of a tree from seed to seedling to mature, seed-producing tree to snag to fallen log to humus that nurtures new seeds.
Have younger students act out the process individually as you guide them through it. “First you’re a little pine seed, buried by a squirrel in the soil. Now, with the help of the rain, you begin to stretch a tiny root down and a tiny stem up. The seasons pass and the years pass, and you slowly grow into a tall pine tree. After a hundred years of growing, you stop growing taller, but keep growing slowly wider. After 250 years, a big windstorm comes and blows hard through your branches. One super-big gust pushes you over, and you topple to the ground. You lie there for another hundred years, slowly softening and decaying. Eventually, your mighty trunk becomes part of the soil, ready to nurture new trees.” You can add infinite variations to this simple visualization, including animals that might live in and around the tree, other natural events that might occur, different ways for the tree to die and return to the soil, etc.
Older students can work together to act out the cycling of a tree. Brainstorm with them the many players involved in the process. In addition to seeds, growing tree, and soil, there are a host of wildlife species connected to the tree at every stage of its growth, death, and decay. If you have a parent helper or classroom aide, you can divide your student group in half and have each group develop a play about the tree cycle process. After they have practiced, have each group act out their play for the other half of the class.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following concepts:
Christmas trees are classified as conifers (evergreens). 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.
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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.
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 agclassroomstore.com.
Compare and contrast family life now with family life in the local community or state long ago by considering such things as roles, jobs, communication, technology, style of homes, transportation, schools, religious observances, and cultural traditions.
K-4 History Standard 2A: The history of students' own local community and how communities in North America varied long ago.