When it comes to deciding on a Christmas tree there are two camps of people: the ones who grew up with fake trees and don’t mind them, and the die-hard, give-me-pine-scent-or-give-me-death live tree purists. Growing up, I thought that I didn’t care all that much, that maybe avoiding the day each year when we’d have to don stiff leather work gloves and trudge through cold, slushy snow to pick the perfect tree wouldn’t be so terrible. We could avoid the argument we have each year over who lights the tree better, and the hassle of sweeping up fallen pine needles for weeks on end.
But then we purchased our first artificial tree during the COVID lockdown, and I had an epiphany: As it turns out, I loathe artificial trees. I hate the way the fake needles prickle against my skin. I hate the vaguely musty smell it carries, despite our careful storage each year. And I hate the symmetry of it all; the fact that the tree is a perfect, skinny triangle and yet the branches never quite seem to camouflage the “trunk” in the middle.
Mark me down as a purist, I suppose. But for some people, the decision is less sensory-related and much more nuanced. Which kind of tree is more ecologically sustainable? Which is more cost effective? If you’re still on the fence regarding the matter, we’re here to help. We’ve researched some of the pros and cons about real vs. artificial Christmas trees so you can make the right decision.
Real Christmas Trees:
Establishes a Family Tradition: As much as I might’ve grumbled each time my family made the annual pilgrimage to the local Christmas tree farm, it must have ingrained in myself a certain sense of duty. It just doesn’t feel right, to pick out a pre-cut tree at a big-box store, or to [clutches pearls] just pull one out of a box each year. A live tree is much more festive, permeating the house with that lovely pine smell and a heady sense of nostalgia. Which brings us to our next item:
The Smell: There really is nothing else like it. You can buy scented items to hang around the house, or get a pine-scented candle, but it’s never quite the same.
They’re More Environmentally Sustainable: It seems counter-intuitive that cutting down a tree would be the better option, but it’s true. Christmas tree farmers are incentivized to make sure planting and harvesting are balanced to protect the environment. For every real Christmas tree that is harvested, at least one new tree is planted in its place. As an added bonus, real trees are biodegradable and recyclable, which means they can be repurposed for mulch, compost or firewood instead of just going to waste in a landfill somewhere.
Artificial trees, in contrast, have three times the impact on climate change and resource depletion. They’re constructed from plastic and steel, require more energy to produce, and the vast majority are shipped over from China — making their carbon footprint impressive to say the least.
Support Local Farmers: Most fake trees come from large box stores and are mass-manufactured overseas. Alternatively, if you get a tree from a local family-owned-and-operated Christmas tree farm or your charming local nursery, you’ll be supporting a much more worthy cause: Tree farms are great for the environment, they help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, and they create jobs for people, homes for animals, and are far nicer to look at than a manufacturing plant.
They Take Work: One of the drawbacks to a live Christmas tree is that you need to keep it alive, at least for a few weeks. That means you need to get it in water within an hour of trimming the trunk (to ensure the tree can still “drink”), and then water it regularly throughout the holiday season. Some people even go so far as to concoct “secret formulas” for keeping their tree fresh, like adding corn syrup, sugar, aspirin or even bleach to the water in the tree stand (although most experts agree this isn’t necessary).
Not only is it often hard to remember to do, but it’s physically difficult, as well. My method involves lying on the ground and extending my arm (and the watering container) as far in as it can go, to reduce the amount of pine needles that end up getting stuck in my hair.
They’re a Fire Hazard: If you don’t water your tree enough, resin will form at the bottom of the trunk, and the tree will slowly die. This wouldn’t be so terrible, if not for the fact that a dead conifer turns into one heckuva fire hazard very quickly: The National Fire Protection Association reports that between 2015 and 2019, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 160 home fires started by Christmas trees each year, and it can take less than 30 seconds for a dry tree to burn down most of your living room.
More Cost Effective: One of the most popular arguments for an artificial tree is that it saves the consumer money. Based on data from The National Christmas Tree Association, the average price per real Christmas tree in 2018 was $78, while the average price for a fake one was $104. The advantage, obviously, is that you can reuse the faux tree year after year.
Less Maintenance: The other argument in support of artificial trees is that they are way, way easier to maintain. You don’t need to water it daily, or vacuum the piles of needles that inevitably drop throughout the season from a live tree. You can also avoid the hassle of picking out a tree each year, transporting it home on the top of your car, and then getting covered in sticky sap as you struggle to get it vertical in the stand. Instead, you can calmly retrieve it from wherever you store it, fluff up the boughs a bit, and voila, you’re done.
They (might) Look Nicer: For some, the advantage of artificial Christmas trees is that they are more symmetrical. You don’t need to turn the tree a certain way to hide any unsightly gaps between the branches, and there is never a weird kink to the trunk that you can’t correct.
Not Environmentally Friendly: As we discussed above, the biggest drawback is that artificial trees are terrible for the environment. They’re made of PVC, polyvinyl chloride plastic, which is petroleum based and created in pollution-belching petrochemical facilities. When they are shipped overseas from China, they’re carried by fossil fuel-powered ships and then heavy freight trucks before they get to a big-box store. Some studies have ventured to claim that if you use an artificial tree for long enough, the carbon footprint would eventually balance out with the environmental cost of planting, watering and fertilizing live trees, but many of these studies have been disputed.
They Still Shed Needles: No matter how well you store and care for your artificial Christmas tree, it will eventually start shedding as you manipulate it each year. The gradual erosion of needles will cause the tree to start looking shabby after a couple of years, which makes it harder to justify the benefit of it being reusable.