How to Preserve the Smell of the Christmas Tree

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Sorry to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, but everyone knows that the holiday season doesn't ‌truly‌ begin until the Christmas tree goes up.

Breathing in that fresh, piney Christmas tree smell every time you come home is your reward for going through the hassle of getting a real Christmas tree. Because let's be honest: It might be a beloved tradition in your family, but strapping a tree to your car and wrestling it into your home and into a tree stand is also hard work. And caring for a live tree takes more maintenance than caring for a fake tree, which wouldn't drop needles all over your floor.

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But there's no substitute for the smell of a real, live Christmas tree in your living room. So it's disappointing when the odor starts to fade before Santa has even come down the chimney. (When the conditions are right, a freshly cut tree could last indoors for up to eight weeks!) Not this year: Try these tips to keep that festive, piney scent in the air until January.

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How to preserve the smell of the Christmas tree

1. Start with a freshly cut trunk

Prolonging the smell of a fresh Christmas tree is all about preserving the tree itself; in other words, keeping it from drying out too quickly. So it starts with choosing a healthy tree, one that doesn't leave a shower of needles on the ground when the tree is dropped from a height of a few inches.

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Keep the bottom of the trunk from drying out before you put the tree into its stand. Christmas tree vendors will typically trim the trunk before you take it home, but sap will start to leak out and harden on the cut wood right away. That hardened material will keep the tree from absorbing the water you put in your tree stand. So arrange your tree-buying schedule so you can bring it home and put it into water within a few hours of the end being cut. (If you have a handsaw and know how to use it safely, you may also cut off another inch from the bottom of the trunk before bringing the tree indoors.)

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If you live somewhere cold and your Christmas tree has been outdoors up until you bought it, you may need to allow the tree to warm up slowly before bringing it into your warm house or the temperature shock will speed up the drying process. Leave it in a garage, shed, or covered porch for a few days to acclimatize to warmer temperatures — but keep it in a bucket of water at all times to prevent sap from hardening on the trunk.

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Why Christmas trees smell

Ever wondered what, exactly, is responsible for that unmistakable woodsy Christmas tree smell? Quick science-lesson time!

Coniferous trees (the plant group that includes pine trees and spruce trees as well as Douglas firs, balsam firs, Fraser firs and other fir trees) produce oleoresin. This substance helps repel pests and contains chemical compounds called terpenes. Terpenes let off odors as they evaporate, which starts happening as soon as you bring your tree into your warm home. These evaporating terpenes are responsible for the Christmas tree scent.

Different trees have different types of terpenes, which is why not all trees smell the same. Common terpenes include pinene (which gives off that classic "piney" smell); limonene, which smells citrusy; and camphene, which smells like camphor.

2. Set up the tree away from heat sources

Heat speeds up the rate at which your Christmas tree dries out. To extend the life of the tree's woodsy scent, you want to let those terpenes evaporate as slowly as possible. Look for a spot that's not in the path of any heating vents or a lot of direct sunlight.

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Never set up a Christmas tree anywhere close to a space heater, fireplace, electric heater or other heat source. This isn't just a matter of preserving the tree's odor, but preventing a catastrophe. Nearly one-fifth of indoor Christmas tree fires are caused by some sort of heat source, per the National Fire Protection Association.

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3. Give it a daily drink

Replenish the tree's water supply every day. The rule of thumb is to expect a tree to absorb about 1 quart of water per day per inch of the trunk's diameter. So if your tree has a 4-inch diameter, it will require a gallon of water per day.

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Use fresh water to feed your Christmas tree. There's no solid proof that any other DIY additives like sugar or vodka will improve the tree's hydration or extend its life, so stick with water.

Hey, fake Christmas trees can smell good, too!

If you're a proud member of #TeamFakeChristmasTree, you still deserve to enjoy the woodsy smell of real greenery during the holiday season. There are a few ways to do it.

  • Hang scented tree ornaments from the branches. They're sold as long green sticks that blend into the tree but create a strong odor.
  • Tuck real tree branches or greenery garlands into your artificial Christmas tree.
  • Make or buy diffuser ornaments to hang in the tree, spritzed with your favorite woodsy essential oils.

4. Keep the room cool and humid

Maintain as cool and humid of a climate in the Christmas tree room as you're comfortable with. Turn the house heat down low and/or close heat vents to the tree room when no one's home. In a dry climate, you may want to run a humidifier and/or bring more plants into the space to keep moisture in the air.

With these steps in mind, you can do everything possible to extend the life of your Christmas tree (and its woodsy scent) beyond New Year's Day. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you'll get a tree that just doesn't smell as Christmasy as you wished — but that's just a great reason to treat yourself to a few new pine-scented candles. Happy sniffing!

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