Georgia is home to Europe’s favourite Christmas tree, the fragrant Nordmann fir. So why do locals have to pay so much for one?

Festive shoppers love the classic shape, pleasant fragrance and soft needles of the Nordmann fir. It’s Europe’s most popular Christmas tree, making up as much as 60% of the market. European nurseries source seeds for these trees from the mountainous region of Racha in the Republic of Georgia. In the UK, you might pay between £55 and £70 ($72-92) for a 2m tree. Yet in Georgia, where the trees are endemic, prices can be four times as high.

It wasn’t always this way. In the past, Nordmann firs were available cheaply on the Georgian market – if you didn’t mind the fact that they were illegally logged. Georgia is home to beautiful national forests, such as Abastumani in the south, but these have been targeted by loggers felling trees illegally for the timber trade or seasonal Christmas demand. In 2011, however, amid concern over rapid deforestation, new regulations and higher fines were implemented to tackle the problem.

Enforcement of these new rules has steadily become more robust. The Environmental Patrolling and Urgent Response Division in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, which includes Abastumani National Park, has grown from eight staff in 2013 to more than 60 today. At the beginning, staff members often received tip-offs about illegal operations or came across evidence of them while on patrol. But now this has become rarer, and they estimate that very little illegal logging is still taking place.

Today, fines for selling or transporting illegally felled trees are set at 1,200 lari ($415) per infraction, an enormous sum in a country where the average monthly salary was around $369 in 2018. This has almost completely destroyed the market for illegal Christmas trees. If Georgians want a Christmas tree, their primary option is to buy from a local tree nursery – if they can afford it. Agromax Décor, a nursery on the outskirts of the capital Tbilisi specialising in coniferous trees, quotes a price between 850 and 1,500 lari ($294-$519) for a 2m Nordmann fir. For some, this means a single tree would set them back a full month’s pay.

Prices are high because Nordmann firs are slow-growing trees: it can take up to 10 years to grow a 2m specimen.  Many Georgian nurseries only began to grow them when the crackdown on logging caused demand for legal trees to rise, meaning they are not yet fully grown. With a severely limited supply of legal, domestic Nordmanns, consumers are either forced to splash out on expensive imported firs or settle for cheaper home-grown alternatives that are seen as less beautiful, fragrant and prestigious.

This results in an odd, albeit temporary, situation. Georgia, a nation famed for its beautiful Christmas fir, is exporting the seeds for these trees to countries like Denmark and Poland, then importing the trees back at a steep mark-up once they are grown. Agromax Décor, for example, imports Nordmann firs from Poland while it waits for its own to mature. But it won’t be forever – prices should drop over the next five years as the juvenile Nordmanns reach maturity.

However, even if prices drop, it’s unclear whether cut Christmas trees will become a popular option for regular Georgian families. Many are deeply attached to the nation’s forests and oppose felling live trees. In addition, these high prices may be helping to re-popularise an old tradition. Chichilakis are straight, dry hazelnut or walnut branches that have been hand-shaved into the shape of a small coniferous tree. Decorated with small fruits and berries, they adorn houses as Georgians celebrate the Orthodox Christmas on 7 January. Selling chichilakis was banned under Soviet rule, but the tradition is making a return today.  

Chichilakis range in size, and prices start from just a few dollars – much cheaper than cut trees. And since chichilakis are traditionally made only using branches which are being pruned from the trees anyway, they are also a much more environmentally friendly option.