December is a special month. That’s when there are decorations outside, and warmth and love inside. That’s also when there is a piece of Georgia in millions of Europeans’ living room.
Every December people all over Europe search near and far for the perfect Christmas tree, and when they find it they buy it, take it home, and decorate it, bringing much joy to the family. Christmas presents for loved ones are placed underneath the tree, creating an atmosphere of happiness. But not everyone realises the origin of their Christmas tree.
A little-known fact is that Georgia is the homeland of Christmas trees.
Little Georgia is a big player in the Christmas tree industry. Every year about 45 million Nordmann firs – the most popular type of Christmas trees – are sold across Europe. More than 80 percent of all seeds for these trees come from Georgia.
Georgia produces seed for the finest Christmas trees in the world. Photo courtesy Of Fair Trees.
Georgia – homeland of the Christmas tree
In late September every year, strong men, their wives and children from Georgia’s remote Racha region leave their homes for the distant forest, where, using their bare hands, they climb 40-60 meter-tall pine trees to collect cones that are later processed to produce seeds. These seeds are then sold to mainly Danish companies, making Denmark Europe’s largest Christmas tree exporter.
Danish Christmas tree growers help the Georgian seeds grow into beautiful trees and by the time Christmas is approaching, they start selling them to European citizens, making sure there is a place in each house in Europe where Santa Claus can leave his presents on Christmas Eve.
Racha, a picturesque region in the west of Georgia where the finest Christmes tree seeds are collected. Photo courtesy Of Fair Trees.
Racha is a fairytale land in the west of Georgia. It is a place of huge mountains and symmetrical trees, glittering lakes and colourful flowers, and, most importantly, hardworking and kind people. In winter the entire region is covered by a thick layer of snow. That’s when the people of Racha, living in beautiful, wooden houses, light a blazing fire in their old fireplaces, drink their wonderful, naturally semi-sweet red wine, called Khvanchkara, and smile as they think of how much joy their Christmas trees brought to millions of families across the continent.
This drawing by a cone-picker's child depicts a typical settlement in Racha, the homeland of the Christmas tree. Photo courtesy Of Fair Trees.
Why are Georgian Christmas trees the best Christmas trees?
The Nordmann fir, also known as the Caucasian fir, is Europe’s favourite type of Christmas tree, and for good reason:
It has an elegant, conical shape and symmetrical, massive evergreen branches. Its needles are also less sticky, last longer, are resistant to warmth, and don’t drop as fast as other types. Most importantly, its needles aren’t sharp and have a pleasant colour and smell.
The Nordmann fir is the most popular type of Christmas trees in the world. Photo courtesy Of Fair Trees.
In other words, the Nordmann fir is the safest type of Christmas tree, perfect even when there is a baby crawling in the room where the tree is placed.
The less attractive side of this beautiful story
The joy that Georgian Christmas trees bring to millions of families may be priceless, but the untold story behind the Christmas trees must also be revealed.
Cone-pickers in the homeland of Christmas trees risk their health, and sometimes their lives, to harvest tree seeds, for which they don’t even receive fair payment.
These men collect seeds that grow into the most beautiful Christmas trees in Europe. Photo courtesy Of Fair Trees.
Life is difficult and conditions are tough in Georgia’s mountains. Locals can’t find a job easily so they happily accept the offer to go to the forest, climb the highest fir trees and collect cones without belts or any other safety measures. Consequently, every year during cone-harvesting season in Racha there is at least one accident where a man falls to his death, or is permanently injured.
For this risky job, each local man gets paid about 1 GEL (35 cents) for 1kg of cones. About 10kg of Nordmann fir cones are needed for a single kilogram of seeds. Once the cones are harvested, the seeds are removed, transported to Denmark, planted at Danish farms and grown into trees. Each tree is sold in western European countries for from €70-100 - hundreds of times the amount earned by Georgian cone-pickers.
Once the cones are harvested, the seeds are removed, transported to mainly Denmark and Germany, planted at farms and grown into tree. Photo courtesy Of Fair Trees.
The worst part is sometimes, the trees grown from Georgian seeds in Denmark are imported back to Georgia and sold for higher prices.
This Danish company will restore your faith in humanity
Fair Trees is one of the 22 Danish companies that buy Christmas tree cones from the Racha region but what’s unique about this company is that it sends a portion of all money from Christmas tree sales back to Georgia to support the cone-picking community.
For every Christmas tree sold, €0.675 is reserved for educational and health programs in Ambrolauri, the municipal centre of Racha, and nearby villages. Fair Trees takes this social responsibility as a member of the World Fair Trade Organisation.
Fair Trees donates a large portion of its income to the local community in Racha. Photo courtesy Of Fair Trees.
Moreover, cone-pickers for Fair Trees are paid several times as much as others, and they are also required to undergo mandatory safety training and Red Cross first aid training to make sure no accident takes place and everyone remains alive and healthy.
Fair Trees cone-pickers undergo mandatory safety training. Photo courtesy Of Fair Trees.
United Kingdom-based Georgian singer Katia Melua is the ambassador for Fair Trees.
"I’m thrilled that Fair Trees, by way of Fair Trade, has reached the poor cone pickers in Georgia. Fair Trade is a wonderful project that helps improve the lives of many people in remote areas of Georgia,” Melua says.
Founder of Fair Trees and Honorary Consul of Georgia to Denmark Marianne Bols says that while operating in Georgia, she feels like she is representing her country and wants to be "a good ambassador of Demnark and Danish industry”, so "safe and fair working conditions is a must”.
"In Denmark we are so privileged; we are at the level of development where we can talk about animal welfare for chickens. This is natural for us and also important for us,” she says.
"But, at the same time, we face unsafe working conditions for cone-pickers in the homeland of Christmas trees. We are faced with children in the remote area of Racha having no access to water and proper toilet facilities, neither at school nor at home.”
Marianne Bols, founder of Fair Trees and Honorary Consul of Georgia to Denmark together with the beneficiaries of the Fair Trees Fund. Photo courtesy Of Fair Trees.
Bols says she wants to lead the change of the Christmas tree industry and to humanize the business. This is what Fair Trees stands for: fair to people and fair to the forest, she says.
Some of the charity activities Fair Trees has carried out in Racha include opening a dental clinic in Ambrolauri where children get dental service for free. Also providing cone-pickers with a good health insurance package and funding their children’s education at institutions of higher education in major Georgian cities.
After all, what is Christmas all about?
Every Christmas tree is special, as it brings a feeling of Christmas spirit into the home. However, there are Christmas Trees that are better than others, and such trees come from Georgia.
Currently, Georgian Christmas Trees are proudly standing in millions of living rooms across Europe, bringing happiness to those living there. And if these trees are Fair Trees, this means happiness was brought to families in Racha as well. After all, isn’t family fun what Christmas is all about?
Children of the cone-picking community in Racha. Photo courtesy Of Fair Trees.