Christmas Debate: Real or Artificial?

By Jeff Westover

(Author bias: We use an artificial tree in our home every holiday season but we do so under protest. If I could, I would use a real tree. But our choice of tree has nothing to do with environmental consciousness. The simple fact is that we live in a desert and real trees can’t be home grown and never last five days if imported. In my heart, I’m a Christmas purist, which means I believe a season of peace and goodwill is only properly celebrated by hacking down a living tree and drying it out to the point of combustability.)

Only the modern Christmas could present such a dilemma: should one use a completely recyclable resource (real Christmas trees) once a year or use the same landfill-unfriendly resource (artificial trees) for many years in the celebration of the season?

Every year this debate rages over one of the most beloved symbols of the season, the Christmas tree.

The Christmas tree has been an indispensable part of winter tradition that predates even Jesus Christ. Anciently, the evergreen was viewed as a symbol of eternal life, giving hope to sun worshippers trying to make it through the gloomy months of winter without the green of nature to inspire them.

Germany lays claim to birthing the modern-day adoration of fir trees. Hessian soldiers reportedly celebrated Christmas on the lines of battle during the Revolutionary war with festive trees lit by candles.

Over the decades after that conflict and with the influx of German immigrants settling Pennsylvania the addition of trees to the infant celebration of Christmas in America took root, so to speak.

The modern media of the19th century spread the popularity of trees by writing stories about them from British society and picturing them on another new holiday tradition known as “Christmas cards”. Some of the first photography used in early newsprint showed Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree using something called “Christmas lights” in the late 1800s. As electricity came into more and more homes, so did the tradition of the Christmas tree.

Little did we know then of the environmental debate we would unleash a century later.

Every year, some 20 million real fir trees are harvested in the name of Christmas celebration and more than 10 million artificial trees are purchased for the same purpose. That makes Christmas trees a serious business and disposal of Christmas trees an environmental pickle.

Saving the environment seems to be central to the case for marketing of both products. Marketing efforts from both sides of the industry frequently pitch their answers to the eco-friendly stigma they want detached from their product.

So then how does one exactly celebrate a green Christmas? What exactly is the right answer for making merry without feeling environmentally guilty?

Real Christmas tree growers remind us frequently that real trees are completely recyclable, thus giving them the nod in an argument long on political correctness. Artificial trees, they will argue, are made with oil-byproducts, chemicals, trace amounts of lead and other substances that at the end of the day (month, year, centuries, etc) just won’t breakdown in a landfill.

Tree farmers also say that for every tree they cut down they plant 20 more, thus improving the environment with every swing of the ax.

But artificial tree manufacturers quickly cry “Not so fast!”.

The devil is in the details of growing real trees, they say.

Real trees are grown using pesticides and chemical treatments of their own. These substances might be good for the growth of a tree but they do not prove all that helpful to the ground water in areas where tree farms are located.

A real tree consumer has to fetch a new tree every year. That alone complicates the eco-evaluation. A family of four loading up in the car and heading to the hills to cut down a tree will use a lot more fuel than Uncle Benny fetching his faux-tree from the basement. On the other hand, if they head to the local tree lot to pick out something real, how much are they really harming the environment on their yearly tree slaughtering trek?

If a real tree is purchased from a tree lot, it has to be “strip-mined” by machines using fossil fuels, transported using fossil fuels, displayed with inefficient lighting and disposed of by more fuel-hungry machines. This messy process gets repeated year after year adding who knows how many carbon offsets to a family’s account at the local confessional of environmental sin.

It is, at least, enough to make one look on Uncle Benny as something of an eco-genius. Unless, of course, you consider the following:

Artificial trees aren’t free from transportation-related enviro issues either.

Most are made in China so they get to enjoy a long boat ride to markets around the world. From boats to trains to trucks, artificial trees take more than their share from nature. But once in a house, they stay there. The average life-span of most artificial trees is 8 to 10 years.

Despite the once popular fad of artificial trees made from aluminum there really isn’t anything good to be said about the materials used in a modern artificial tree. You can’t exactly throw it to the curb or put it in the recycling bin. Where do artificial Christmas trees go to die? In most cases, the county landfill where it will take slightly longer to decompose than your average fruit cake, disposable diaper or kryptonite.

The enviro-issues of Christmas trees has some in the green community actually suggesting that — gasp! — maybe you should celebrate Christmas without a tree at all.

Tree hugging, however, knows no season like Christmas. And the chances of that happening are about as great as Santa wearing pink.

Truth be told, the whole — pardon the pun — tree hugging argument when it comes to Christmas trees is a bit ridiculous anyway. Compared to the annual usage of water bottles, packages, clothing, cosmetics, and other hard consumables a Christmas tree represents a mere fraction of a percent of human trash. Maybe once we solve the amount of time and plastic used in packaging a Barbie that takes a half hour to bust open we can move on to solving our Christmas tree crisis.

Until then, I say let’s trim the tree and let the weather outside be frightful.

2 thoughts on “Christmas Debate: Real or Artificial?

  • October 14, 2014 at 9:24 am
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    I think most tried and true Christmas lovers will agree that real trees win the argument every time, but even those who prefer real trees can’t always have them. Whether it’s because they’re in a place/climate where it’s just impossible to buy a real tree or they’re not physically able to lug a giant, bristly tree into their home, real trees aren’t always the best option for every one. My mom still insists on having a real tree, and each year, thanks to her high ceilings, she purchases a tree that tops out at about 11 feet tall. Lucky for her, my husband does all of the heavy lifting/setting up. But if she didn’t have that help, she’d have to likely settle for a 6/7ft tall pre-lit faux-tree. My family and I have always been lucky enough to have real trees. It was a privilege. I live in Georgia, where there are a variety of pine Christmas tree farms, but we prefer the farmers who truck their trees down from the North Carolina mountains. Blue spruce and Fraser firs are favorites of ours. Picking the tree out is a family tradition within itself. We all pile into the car, drive down to the local farmer’s market, and the youngest person in the family picks out the tree. While we’re picking out our tree, the farmers who grew the trees tell us about themselves, how they got into tree farming or just entertain us with funny stories. A real Christmas tree is a vital part of my family tradition and I’m so thankful for it 🙂

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  • September 23, 2015 at 5:05 pm
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    I put up our artificial tree in our Phoenix home on the day after Thanksgiving. That gives us about 3+ to 4+ weeks of enjoyment. If I were to use a real tree for the same duration, I would need to buy 4-5 trees – maybe 6 – every 5 days or so. Real trees take about 5 days to completely dry out in Phoenix, to the point where they are EXTREME fire hazards. That’s not going to cut the mustard in our house. Real trees are great, but totally impractical in Phoenix, AZ

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