A Christmas tradition in my childhood involved making paper and glitter decorations in each year of elementary school. Each grade level was given a theme to translate into their ornaments, and a morning assembly would be held a few weeks before Christmas where kids paraded onto the gymnasium stage to hang their decorations. Though our school was small (about 150 kids in total from kindergarten through sixth grade) the tree was still plastered with our creations.
The best part, though, was that my dad hauled in a fresh tree each year for this celebration. How my father was designated as our official Christmas tree supplier remains a mystery (perhaps because my mother was on the school board, that my aunt was a secretary at the school, or because we had a lot of acreage replete with pines and firs), but each year, I’d walk out into the woods behind our farm with my dad, find a suitable tree (the fatter the better). Instead of riding the bus, I got to ride into school in my dad’s old umber-colored pick-up and hold the door while he dragged the tree in, it’s tip grazing the floor as it sloped down from his shoulder. The pride I felt then is nearly unmatched today: Watching my dad place the tree in a red and green steel stand while snow pooled on the stage’s hardwood from his work boot, staining the hems of his Carhartt overalls, remains as one of my favorite holiday memories.
The superiority of a real tree at Christmas is firmly cemented in my mind. An artificial tree is clearly subpar.
But that’s only this writer’s opinion. Hauling a fake tree down from the attic does not have the same feel as dragging a tree through the house, making everything sticky with pine sap. If you didn’t suffer a little, was it really Christmas?
“It wouldn’t feel like Christmas if I didn’t get sap on me and have needles all over the floor after,” says Teri Conroy of Altamont. In a highly unofficial Facebook poll, most respondents seemed to agree. The top reason given for purchasing a real tree was that fresh pine smell, a harbinger of the holiday celebrations to come. “My brother told [my son] that if you didn’t have a real tree then Santa couldn’t smell where to go,” says Sara Mazutto Regan, of Saratoga. Inevitably, those trees dry out, droop, and start to discolor. The struggle to de-decorate and remove the tree is about as arduous as bringing it in.
Artificial Christmas trees are the panacea for all tree ills, some think. “We always did real,” says Maria Gallo, of Delmar. She continues, “I loathed the artificial until two year ago I saw little spiders climbing up my wall, all over the floor and near my couch. I did some research and saw what was coming to the houses along with the trees in the age of global warming and mild Decembers. And I always go to the same, reputable, expensive place. That was it for me. I’ve been artificial for two years and I love it because I don’t have to wait to decorate and be cozy!”
Convenience seems to be the primary reason to go fake. Placing a tree up early in the season without worry of shedding needles and keeping it decorated (even while in storage) are hard reasons to argue against. If you choose artificial, be sure it really looks artificial, some say. “We always have a real tree at home but I have had fake ones at the restaurant. However, my criteria for fake trees is that they be very obviously fake. We had a creamy wintergreen colored one, a hot pink and a lime green. Go for the weirdness,” says Ric Orlando of New Work Home Cooking in Saugerties and New World Bistro Bar in Albany.
Some choose artificial because they feel guilty about cutting down a tree each season. “I prefer real because they’re far more beautiful, with a very special presence that fake trees are simply devoid of. At the same time, I’ve begun to feel guilty about destroying a tree just to turn it into a temporary decoration,” says Tony Pallone, of Albany.
A fake tree is more environmentally hazardous than a real tree, reports state. According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), most artificial trees are made from metal and polyvinyl chloride PVC), a petroleum-based product that is non-biodegradable and leaches chemicals into the air. These trees cannot be recycled and at least 85 percent are shipped to the US from China. Newer trees are increasingly made with polyethylene, which can be recycled, but because it is typically mixed or bonded with PVC, it still poses issues.
93 percent of real trees are recycled, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, used after the holidays to be turned into mulch for landscaping, erosion protection among beaches and waterways, or for wildlife habitat stabilization. Local farms frequently accept discarded real trees to be used to feed and entertain livestock. (Need a smile? Google “goats eating Christmas tree.”)
Each mature Christmas tree can absorb one ton of carbon dioxide in its lifetime, and every acre of trees produces enough oxygen daily for 18 people. Regulations are stringent and require that for each tree harvested, three seedlings must be planted. NCTA reports that the domestic Christmas tree industry employs upwards of 100,000 Americans annually.
The real tree industry nets $8 million each year for New York State, and a new “New York State Grown and Certified” program for Christmas trees reduces the carbon footprint of real trees, keeping trees as local as possible.
Overall, people are still opting for real: 27.4 million real trees were bought by Americans in 2016, as compared to 18.6 million fake. In that year, 350 million trees were being grown specifically for the Christmas tree industry.
More divisive than political leanings, dietary preferences, or the classic Beatles versus Rolling Stone issue, choosing a real tree or a fake tree at the holidays can cause acrimony for even the most close-knit families. Whichever you choose, we hope this holiday season, you still find a present under the tree, just for you.