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Trees and turkeys have a history as holiday favorites

Published December 17. 2011 09:01AM

The Christmas tree has a colorful history, even predating American independence.

The first decorated Christmas tree was in Riga, Latvia, in 1510 and the first use of small candles to light a holiday tree dates back to the middle of the 17th century.

Christmas trees have been sold commercially in this country since about 1850. Thomas Edison's assistant, Edward Johnson, came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees in 1882.

Just before Christmas in 1911, a Tamaqua Courier writer informed readers that there were about 4 million trees harvested annually in the United States. By comparison, in today's era between 30-35 million real Christmas trees are purchased in the nation every year.

The Tamaqua writer a century ago found it hard to comprehend all the good that is done by the little tree as an expression of the Christmas spirit, especially for those who lived in the city and couldn't experience the benefits of living in "God's outdoors."

"The little tree brings a reminder to many of the hilarity of childish excursions to the wood lot for holiday decorations," he said. "How the laughter of children's voices did echo in the still spaces of winter. If silence came for a moment you could hear the neighbor's boys chopping down their tree a couple of miles away."

The Christmas greenery, he said, suggests everlasting hope - "a power that preserves the human heart evergreen amid the white silence of death."

He said this is harder to experience to someone living in the city.

"Love for nature is a spark that is nearly dead in the hearts of people who live the abnormal and uneconomic life of the great cities," he said. "Perhaps in some of them the little hemlock stranger from the hillsides may stir the longing for the more wholesome life of the country. In some hearts the little visitor (the tree) preaches the loveliness, the health and the economic rewards of living close to Mother Earth."

In another pre-Christmas article, a Courier writer talked about the decline of that traditional turkey. He said one reason for the decline was affordability. In 1911, turkey was selling for 25 to 28 cents a pound. He found that much too high although with today's prices (about $1 per pound) it would be a bargain.

"It seems hardly fair that many working men have to devote nearly half a week's pay to providing what is only the backbone of a Christmas day square meal," he complained.

Despite the price, he considered the turkey irreplaceable on the dinner table.

"The golden brown and plump rotundity of this magnificent fowl as it lies upon the platter is symbolic of the abundant fruition of the harvest season and the material blessings of our lives," he stated.

The writer explained how the wild turkey, which once roamed the woods from New England to Mexico, was being squandered as one of our valued resources. He said today's turkey was "merely a domesticated descendant of the former denizen of the forests, which still feels in his heart the call of the wild."

"Putting him in a coop and stuffing him with concentrated foods has about the same effect as if a live boy was kept in a greenhouse and fed on mince pie," he said. "Successful turkey growers give their birds a wide range, in woodland if possible as the young birds are very sensitive to cold and wet."

The writer would certainly have had trouble with today's factory farms, where many of our turkeys are mass produced. From the way the birds are hatched in an incubator on a huge farm - most likely in the Midwest or the South - to the process of fattening them up quickly and clipping their beaks, would have been disturbing.

When the turkey's beak is altered, it can no longer pick and choose what it will eat. Instead, it will do nothing but gorge on the highly fortified corn-based mash that it is offered, which is very different from the varied diet of insects, grass and seeds that game birds prefer.

The writer of 1911 blamed the decline of the wild turkey population in his day on a number of factors, including a pest called the "black head," as well as "loosely-enforced game laws" and the "work of foxes, dogs and cats."

If these conditions are corrected he said "any farmer can breed wild turkeys in his woodlands, and if he keeps out the natural enemies of the birds, he can have a fine flock."

The writer hoped that all the indignities befalling the turkey could be corrected. After all, this was the same native game bird which Benjamin Franklin thought so highly of that he favored it over the bald eagle as our national symbol.

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