8 Regional Alternatives to Christmas Trees

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Christmas trees, along with mistletoe and festive wreaths, are an integral part of the December holiday season. Although conifers such as fir, pine, and spruce are the most popular Christmas trees, some people around the country switch it up and decorate with unconventional options. From trees made of cacti to whiskey barrels, set your sights on these eight regional alternatives to traditional Christmas trees.

1. CACTI // ARIZONA

Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is known for many varieties of cacti, from the saguaro to the prickly pear. Some families in the southwest incorporate native cacti into their Christmas celebrations, but a hotel in Tuscon takes it to another level. Each Christmas since 1986, the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa has displayed a Golden Barrel Cactus Christmas tree, made of 17 rows of 300 of the small, round cacti. The 24-foot tree is decorated with regal ribbons and lights.

2. SAND // FLORIDA

Sandi Land in West Palm Beach Florida
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Given their state’s year-round warm temperatures, Floridians are much more familiar with sand than snow. As a nod to the Sunshine State’s warm weather, some Floridians celebrate Christmas by lighting a tree made of sand. Along the West Palm Beach Waterfront, sand sculptors create a 35-foot tall Christmas tree made entirely of sand. Nicknamed Sandi, the tree weighs a whopping 600 tons.

3. POINSETTIAS // SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations everywhere, but Southern Californians show their love for the Mexican plant in a special way. Residents of San Diego gather in the Little Italy neighborhood to marvel at a poinsettia tree. One thousand local poinsettia plants are stacked to make a 25-foot Christmas tree that is then adorned with thousands of carefully placed LED lights.

4. LOBSTER TRAPS // NEW ENGLAND

Lobster Traps Christmas Tree
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Why decorate a conifer when you can build a Christmas tree out of hundreds of lobster traps? The crustacean is a big part of life in New England, and you can find lobster trap Christmas trees in towns such as Gloucester, Massachusetts and Rockland, Maine. The trees typically consist of wooden or metal lobster traps that are stacked upon one another, and then topped with a traditional star or, fittingly, a lobster figurine.

5. OLD SKIS // COLORADO

Rather than throw out their old skis, some Coloradans donate them for Telluride’s Christmas ski tree. Since 2013, members of the ski town have created a tree made of colorful layers of skis, topped with a star made of ski poles. Locals even gather for a tree lighting ceremony and bonfire—they burn wood and cardboard skis to celebrate Ullr, the Norse god of skiing.

6. PALMETTOS // SOUTH CAROLINA

Christmas Palmetto Trees
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If you visit Charleston during Christmas, you’ll see plenty of festive palmetto trees decorated with string lights. As the state tree of South Carolina (and Florida), the palmetto is all over the city, making it an ideal warm-weather alternative to the evergreen. Although most residents celebrate Christmas with traditional conifers, too, the prevalence of decorated palmettos is hard to ignore.

7. TUMBLEWEEDS // ARIZONA

Tumbleweeds are plentiful in the barren, desolate parts of the southwest. And in Chandler, Arizona, locals have used tumbleweeds to celebrate Christmas since 1957. To make the 30-foot-tall tumbleweed tree, Chandler Park Operations employees gather 1000 tumbleweeds, attach the plants to a tree-shaped wire frame, and spray the tree with white paint and glitter. They then decorate the tree with more than one thousand festive lights.

8. WHISKEY BARRELS // TENNESSEE

The Jack Daniel’s Distillery is world-famous for making authentic Tennessee whiskey. Thanks to the alcohol company, members of the Lynchburg community can celebrate the holidays by marveling at the company’s whiskey barrel tree. Made of 140 empty whiskey barrels, the tree stands at 26 feet and weighs 16,000 pounds.

15 Scientific Ways to Relax for National Relaxation Day

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iStock/anyaberkut via Getty Images

Today is National Relaxation Day, so you have a great excuse to take it easy. Here’s how science can help you have the most laid-back day of the year.

1. Get a house or office plant.

Spending time in nature improves your overall wellbeing, but it turns out even just a little greenery is great for your health. Studies have shown patients in hospital rooms with plants report lower stress. Even just stepping into a lush space can reduce your heart rate. Plus, plants are effective at increasing oxygen and clearing out toxins, which should help you breathe easier—literally.

2. Avoid screens before bedtime.

Artificial light from TV and computer screens affects melatonin production and throws off circadian rhythms, which messes with your sleep. Studies have found that young adults were more likely to suffer from sleep disorders, high stress and even depression if they reported intensive use of cell phones and computers at night.

3. Eat a banana.

Potassium helps your body regulate blood pressure. Keeping that under control should help you bounce back more quickly from what’s got you stressed.

4. Indulge in some citrus.

Still hungry after that chocolate and banana? Try citrus. Recent studies show that vitamin C helps to alleviate the physical and psychological effects of stress.

5. Listen to classical music.

Portrait of a beautiful young woman lying on sofa with headphones on and closed eyes, relaxing
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Any music you enjoy is bound to make you feel better, but classical music, in particular, has been shown to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and even decrease levels of stress hormones.

6. Drink green tea sweetened with honey.

Green tea contains L-theanine, which reduces stress, and honey—unlike cane sugar—has been shown to counteract free radicals and reduce inflammation, which is sometimes linked to depression.

7. Give yourself a hand massage.

Especially if you spend all day typing, hands can get really tense. A quick massage should be doable at your desk and if you incorporate some lavender-scented lotion, you’ll get extra relaxation benefits.

8. Lock lips with someone.

Romance is relaxing! Kissing releases oxytocin, a chemical that is shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

9. Chew some gum.

No matter what flavor it is, the act of chewing gum has been proven to lower cortisol and improve reported mood.

10. Blow up a balloon.

Young woman blowing up a blue balloon against a yellow background
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Reacting to stress with short, shallow breaths will only exacerbate the problem—your body needs more oxygen, not less, to relax. Blowing up a balloon will help you refocus on your breathing. No balloons around? Just concentrate on taking a few deep breaths.

11. Mow the lawn.

Research shows that a chemical released by a mowed lawn—that fresh-cut grass smell—makes people feel happy and relaxed. Plus, knocking it off your to-do list will give you one less thing to stress about.

12. Find something to make you laugh.

Watching a funny video online does more than just brighten your afternoon, it physically helps to relax you by increasing the endorphins released by your brain.

13. Grab some chocolate.

What’s also good at releasing endorphins? Chocolate. Studies show that even just 40 grams of dark chocolate a day can help you de-stress.

14. Focus on relaxing all of your muscles.

Take a break from whatever you’re doing and, starting at your toes and working upwards, spend a few moments slowly tensing, and then releasing, the muscles of each part of your body.

15. Take a mental vacation.

Man takes a break from work to meditate at his laptop
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If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, take a moment to close your eyes and picture a particularly relaxing scene. It may sound cheesy, but numerous studies show that just a few minutes of disengaging from your stressors rejuvenates your ability to tackle the work.

5 Fascinating Facts About Middle Children

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francisgonsa/iStock via Getty Images

Full House's perpetually neglected Stephanie Tanner, The Brady Bunch's embittered Jan Brady, Downton Abbey's tragedy-prone Lady Edith Crawley: For many people, these are the images that pop into their heads when thinking of the stereotypical middle child. In TV shows and movies, they’re often used as comic relief, always stuck in the shadow of their other, seemingly more important siblings. But the reality is far more generous to middle children.

Studies have shown that middle children are exceedingly independent and creative, with certain leadership qualities that their firstborn and last-born counterparts can’t match. Some of our most important world leaders, artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs occupy this oft-mocked middle spot, but from most accounts, it’s a breeding ground for success. Here are five fascinating facts about middle children.

1. Middle children may be endangered.

There was a time during the first half of the 20th century when having three to four children was seen as the ideal number for parents, with 35 percent of moms between 40 and 44 having four children or more. Those numbers have been reversing for several decades—and now, the average American family consists of 3.14 people. On top of that, only 12 percent of women in their early forties have four children or more.

More people are going to college, taking longer to become financially settled, have easier access to birth control, and are embarking on demanding careers that put family life on the back burner. In addition to having children later in life, the average cost of raising a child has increased dramatically over the generations, so one or two kids might be all some couples can afford. These factors all add up to create smaller families, which means we’ll likely see fewer middle children throughout the country in future decades if these trends continue. And without them, we’ll lose out on all of the remarkable traits seen below.

2. Middle children can have first-rate negotiation skills.

Despite the common perception of middle children being resentful of their siblings and never getting enough attention from their parents, Katrin Schumann, co-author of The Secret Power of Middle Children, has done extensive research on the subject that found the plight of middle children may actually be a positive thing later in life. One such trait is their ability to negotiate.

“Middles are used to not getting their own way, and so they become savvy, skillful manipulators,” Schumann told Psychology Today. “They can see all sides of a question and are empathetic and judge reactions well. They are more willing to compromise, and so they can argue successfully. Since they often have to wait around as kids, they’re more patient.”

3. Their low self-esteem might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Yes, the middle child may suffer from low self-esteem when compared to their siblings, due to their “their lack of uniqueness and attention at home,” according to Schumann. However, this doesn’t have to be a negative thing as it helps keep their ego in check.

“Also, self-esteem is not as critical as our society believes,” Schumann explained. “Having an accurate sense of your self-esteem is more important than having high self-esteem. Surprisingly, new studies show that high self-esteem does not correlate with better grades in school or greater success in life. It can actually lead to a lack of perseverance in the face of difficulties.”

4. Middle children tend to be faithful in their relationships.

Dr. Catherine Salmon, Schumann's co-author on The Secret Power of Middle Children, found that 80 percent of middle children claimed they have never cheated on their partner. This is compared to 65 percent of firstborns and 53 percent of last-borns who said they were never unfaithful to their long-term partner or spouse. This, of course, led to separate studies confirming that middle children, and their spouses, were happiest in marriage when compared to other birth orders.

There is a catch, however: Schumann said that while middle children may be the happiest and make for satisfied partners, two middle children might not make an ideal match: "An Israeli marital happiness survey shows that middles are the happiest and most satisfied in relationships, and that they partner well with firsts or lasts—but less well with other middles, because they may both avoid conflict."

5. Some of history's most important leaders were middle children.

Though the conventional numbers have established that most U.S. presidents are firstborns, Schumann contends that half of our Commanders-in-Chief are actually middle children. In an interview with NPR, she revealed that the connection between the presidency and middle children was obscured for years because of one strange quirk: firstborn girls weren’t traditionally counted as older siblings. Instead, firstborns were only taken into consideration when it came to males.

In general, it's difficult to nail down certain presidential birth orders, as the middle child blog SmackDab puts it: "George Washington’s father had four children with his first wife before the first President was born. Washington was the first of six children from his father’s second marriage. So was he the first born or the fifth born?" Still, if we're to take conventional wisdom and a loose definition of what a middle child is (basically anyone not the oldest or the youngest), then it turns out that 52 percent of presidents were born in the middle, including Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Lincoln.

It's JFK in particular, Schumann concluded, who displayed many of the traits typical of a middle child during his years in office, citing his ability to communicate and negotiate even under the most stressful of conditions.

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