Father and son with their dog collecting a tree in the forest, painting by Franz Krüger (1797–1857), Wiki Commons
Christmas tree tradition goes back a long way and originated in ancient times when people decorated their homes with evergreen boughs. This decoration was ornamental, and, depending on culture, also kept away witches and malevolent spirits. Evergreen boughs symbolized continued life throughout the year; for instance, ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra who they believed recovered from illness during the winter solstice. They would fill their homes with palm fronds, representing life and health. Romans would mark the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, by arranging evergreen boughs throughout their temples during the Saturnalia feast, which honored Saturn, the god of agriculture. Similarly, Vikings believed that evergreens were their sun god, Balder’s, favorite plant.
It wasn’t until 16th century in Germany when we saw the heralding of the more modern Christmas tree, a Christian tradition that sometimes included decorated wood pyramids instead of trees, or candles if wood was scarce. The first record of a display of a Christmas tree was by German settlers in Pennsylvania, though legend also has it that Latvians and Estonians erected trees as early as the 1440s. Mid-16th century saw German Paradise trees, which one would pluck an apple from—an obvious reference to the Garden of Eden. Apples were replaced by round ornaments, eventually.
However, up until the mid-19th century, most Christmas trees were considered pagan displays. William Bradford, a Puritan, tried to end the Christmas tree tradition, calling it a pagan mockery. Pilgrim governor Oliver Cromwell went so far as to try to ban Christmas caroling. Joy wasn’t to be mixed with a sacred event.
By the 20th century, the Christmas tree became widely approved as a beautiful testament to whatever tradition one follows during the winter solstice, and very tall trees are often displayed at city centers. Smaller trees beautify individual homes world-wide. Today many people around the world adorn their homes or towns with holiday trees—decorations are often variable, depending upon upbringing or local customs. While some like the shiny stuff: sparkling tinsel and icicles, glass or plastic bulbs, and even fiber-optic bows, some (myself included) enjoy a more natural look, including pine cones, boughs, holly, wooden figurines, and dried orange slices. These embellishments generally expand beyond the tree and onto window sills, fireplace mantels, doorways, and so on. Toy soldiers, glow-in-the dark snowmen, wreaths, mistletoe, candles and candleholders, and holiday flowers are sometimes presented, along with numerous lights, in displays that can overwhelm.
Back to the tree itself: the most common natural Christmas trees are spruces, firs, and pines. Less common trees are sequoias, cypress, and junipers. Some decorators don’t even use a whole tree, but collect large branches and a few boughs, and stick them upright to look like a tree.
Now to the question: Which is better, a natural or artificial tree?
I remember, when young, going out to the coal-mined hills of Eastern Kentucky each year with my Pappaw, Dad, siblings, uncles, and cousins to chop down a tree and bring it back to my grandparents’ humble, cozy house near Hindman to decorate it. I have to say this is one of my favorite holiday memories. The smell of pine, the rosy cheeks, the fun of decorating a tree with all my cousins—these things were, simply, a blast, but my favorite part of it was hiking about the Appalachians in search of the perfect tree, and then the waft of pine and frigid winter air as we cut down the tree and hoisted it into the back of a car or truck. I don’t think we felt too guilty about this experience because trees are renewable. In fact, my mother, in an elementary school project, had planted pine trees all over some of those same mountains. Cut down a tree, and plant a new one, was our motto, with the knowledge in mind we should take fairly new trees and not mature trees.
Even back then, artificial trees were popular. Actually, the tradition of using fake trees is also old; in the 1800s, Germans created trees out of metal wire trees covered with goose and other types of feathers (which were sometimes dyed green). But did you know that an even more modern version of the artificial tree came from the same process as the toilet brush? In the 1930s, the Addis Brush Company created their first tree with the same sort of process, for creating needles and branches, that went into the toilet brush. Aluminum trees were also manufactured in the US in the late 1950s and into the mid 60s. Nowadays, most artificial trees are made of plastic.
My other set of grandparents from the city of Louisville had a plastic tree that they erected year after year. No need to chop down a tree each year. Though I loved those grandparents equally, their “city ways” were often not as exciting! But it did seem, to my young mind, that maybe having one tree only, for years—instead of destroying a real tree year after year—might be the most practical way to go, even if it wasn’t as pretty or didn’t have a wonderful scent hanging about it.
But we need to take into consideration not just the simple mechanism of chopping trees down every year vs. buying one long-lasting tree: what is the overall cost of a tree, in terms of both economy and ecology?
Real trees are either free (if you can access the land where they grow) or cost between $20.00 and $40.00, though prices can go higher if you are looking for a very tall, full one. Artificial trees can cost upwards of about $400.00, sometimes even much higher. It costs about the same to buy a real tree each year for 10 years as it would to buy an artificial tree that would last 10 years. But do fake trees even last as long as 10 years? Maybe, if you preserve them well, but most warranties are only 10-years long and most artificial trees last from 7-10 years. So it seems that buying one real tree for each year is no more expensive than buying one tree to last about 7-10 years. Also, many people decide to buy a new artificial tree even sooner due to technology changing; trees now look more real than trees a few years ago, for instance. Some people also want a different style or color of tree than they had last year or the year before. Artificial trees can resemble pines, firs, and spruces, and can be green, white, silver, or other colors.
Consider also tree safety and fires. It is true that a natural tree is not as flame-resistant, but on the other hand, the chemicals used in artificial trees may cause toxic fumes when on fire.
Now let’s look at what is ecologically more costly, which I think is more important since ecological value trickles down to economic health long-term. By this, I mean, if we take care of our planet and use materials that are renewable and less damaging, we will be investing in our children’s and grandchildren’s access to our earth’s continued resources. That’s a big statement that sometimes seems too overwhelming to bear, but actually isn’t if we are individually accountable in every choice we make, even if it’s what kind of tree to buy or whether we should reforest sections of our habitat (thanks, Mom!).
According to Science20.com, artificial trees are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petroleum-based plastic. This is a non-renewable, non-biodegradable material, and its production results in emissions of unhealthy carcinogens, like dioxin, ethylene dichloride, and vinyl chloride. Manufacturers also use lead as a stabilizer, and other additives, that have proven damaging to liver, kidney, neurological, and reproductive systems. Look at the label for your tree, and ensure there is no lead-laden dust covering the needles. 85% of artificial trees come from China, too, and overseas shipping uses more energy than localized shipping or just getting in your car with a tree and driving home. According to Wikipedia, in 2005 69 million artificial trees entered the US. Another type of artificial tree, the Prelit tree, is classified as an electrical instead of plastic product. But the Prelit trees have a few extra shock and fire hazards, and their lights also contain harmful substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium.
Buying a real tree usually makes the perfect ecological sense. But there are a few warnings that come from that statement. While buying a renewable product is usually the best bet, ensure that the farm you buy it from doesn’t use pesticides and chemicals for pest control or to speed up the growth of the tree. Also, consider the shipping energy cost if the tree farm does not grow its own trees (though the ship costs still would be less than from overseas).
All in all, however, buying real trees is my vote. Well-managed Christmas tree farms that do not use harmful chemicals and that don’t ship their trees in from afar, are doing a service to the planet by helping to sequester carbon dioxide and by utilizing land that might be otherwise barren. Sustainable farms would plant 1-3 trees for every tree harvested, and in that respect constantly replace their crop rather than depleting it. Also, real trees can be recycled and used in mulch.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are close to 350 million trees planted in the U.S. alone, and 25-30 million sold each year. These trees take up about 35,000 acres in production in nearly 15,000 farms. Tree farms also provide about 100,000 people jobs in the Christmas tree industry. The average growing time per tree is 7 years.
If I had to choose a real vs. artificial tree, I’d choose a real one, mainly for its ecological benefit, but also due to the nostalgia of the trees from my childhood. Another idea is to use a potted tree and plant it later. In reality, however, the last time I had a tree, we also had a bevy of kittens from an outdoor neighborhood cat. We’d taken in the kittens and the cat, feeling sorry for them, and found that our tree eventually had new ornaments in the form of kittens who had decided to climb up and explore. They eventually toppled the tree over. Nowadays, we have a large cat that I’m afraid would tip over a tree as well, so I’m usually decorating sparingly.
*This article is republished from 2011.