Of all the traditions and symbols of Christmas, nothing is more enduring than the Christmas tree. Displayed in homes, public squares and office lobbies, the Christmas tree symbolizes the peace and joy of the season.

The first decorated Christmas tree was said to be in Riga, Latvia in 1510, 500 years ago. The story goes that men of the local merchants’ guild decorated a tree with artificial roses, danced around it in the marketplace and then set fire to it.

In the United States, the Christmas tree was introduced in the early 19th Century by German settlers. They quickly gained in popularity, and in 1851 Christmas trees began to be sold commercially in the United States. In 1901, the first Christmas tree farm began when W.V. McGalliard planted 25,000 Norway spruces on his farm in New Jersey.

Today, Christmas tree farming is a big business with 28.2 million farm-grown trees sold in 2009, at a value of $1.15 billion. Real Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states, with about 350,000 acres in production.

SPIRIT Foundation

It will come as no surprise that America’s Christmas tree farmers are a giving lot. You need to look no further than the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation, a charitable organization created by the National Christmas Tree Association in 2005. Since its inception, America’s Christmas tree farmers have used the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation to generously provide a gift of live Christmas trees to military families through the Trees for Troops program.

Since 2005, the Trees for Troops program has touched the lives of more than 67,000 military families at more than 50 bases in the United States and overseas. This year, Trees for Troops is expected to deliver 16,500 real Christmas trees to military families at home and abroad.

Dick Moore, president of the National Christmas Tree Association and owner of Moore Tree Farm, LLC, in Groton, N.Y., said it’s all about giving.

“People appreciate the sacrifices military members and their families make each and every day,” Moore said. “And as Christmas tree farmers, we want to provide a little Christmas spirit and maybe start a new tradition with military families to be able to experience a traditional Christmas with a real tree.”

Through the program, Christmas tree farmers are asked to take donated trees to a designated drop-off spot where volunteers and FedEx trucks gather the trees and package them for delivery. FedEx partners with the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation in Trees for Troops. The general public is also encouraged to support Trees for Troops through financial contributions.

On top of this, the Christmas trees they grow fill America’s homes with fragrance and color during the holidays. Moreover, real Christmas trees are a renewable, recyclable resource that absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen while they grow. It is estimated that Christmas tree farms in North America planted about 41 million new tree seedlings in 2010 to replace harvested crop and meet future increased demand.

Any way you look at it, America’s Christmas tree farmers are a giving lot.