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December 2013

"O Tannenbaum"

By Ellis Brasch

If the title has you thinking of a Christmas tree, that's perfect for this story, although "O Tannenbaum" – the traditional German folk song – refers to a fir tree and has nothing to do with the prodigiously decorated holiday tree.

Nevertheless, we can thank 16th Century Germans for the practice of bringing a tree indoors and decorating it for Christmas. It took a while for the idea to catch on in mainstream America, however. Even as late as the 1840s, Christmas trees were not accepted by most Americans, who perhaps still harbored stern Puritan suspicions that Christmas trees were pagan symbols.

But popular culture has a way of making even strange customs fashionable. After many Americans saw an illustration of Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, standing with their children around a Christmas tree in 1846, they too had to have one.

Catskill farmer Mark Carr apparently established the market for Christmas trees when he hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City in 1851 and sold all of them.

By 1900, one in five American families were bringing trees indoors for Christmas and embellishing them with almost anything that would hang from a bough.

Legend credits Martin Luther with the concept of decorating a Christmas tree with lights, which meant that candles were the only source of illumination until Edward Johnson, assistant to Thomas Edison, came up with the idea of electric lights in 1882. Soon, radiant Christmas trees became a common sight in town squares at the start of the holiday season and lighting ceremonies became an American tradition.

Holiday hazards

Of course, it takes workers to prepare real trees for their Christmas debut. What are the injury risks for those who do the work? Growing Christmas trees takes time (eight to 10 years for trees to be saleable) and the hazards on Christmas tree farms are similar to those on traditional farms: pesticides, dangerous equipment, and overexertion from hard labor. But work-related injuries are more likely to occur when trees are sheared, cut, bailed, and loaded for shipping. The most common are sprains, strains, cuts, and lacerations.

Getting a tree for public display has fewer risks for workers, but the consequences of an injury can be severe: falls and electrocutions.

Falls happen when workers slip while they are unloading trees from flatbed trailers after they arrive at sales lots. Falls also happen when workers slip or lose their balance and from ladders while they're decorating the trees.

Overhead power lines are hazards for window cleaners and roofers, but they're also dangerous for workers who decorate outdoor Christmas trees. Although no recent fatalities have occurred in Oregon, workers in other states have been electrocuted while they were stringing lights on trees and contacted high-voltage lines. Here is the deadly scenario: A worker climbs a ladder or uses an aerial lift to string lights on the upper parts of the tree and as the worker arranges the lights, a section of the light strand touches an overhead line.

If you're planning on decorating a tree this year – in your home or on a public square – do it safely so that you can enjoy the holidays.

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