This topic has been long debated in my family. Growing up in Oregon, we always had gorgeous natural Christmas trees, while my British husband's childhood family always had a plastic tree. Horrors! Well, nowadays plastic trees are much more accepted (and vastly improved aesthetically) than they used to be. But I'm a Northwest stickler for the real Christmas tree. And not just any tree. I have never in my life bought a tree in an urban tree lot. Those trees often sit there for days between being cut and being sold. We joke in our family about leaving up our tree until Valentine's Day--and sometimes it's well into January before we cut it down. We certainly always keep it up until Epiphany. (In fact, one of Mike's family traditions we've implemented is to put your shoes under the tree on Epiphany, and the "Three Kings" leave you a small present overnight.)
Environmentalists and industry advocates are debating which alternative is the "green option." There is no easy answer.A real tree looks and smells beautiful, is sustainably harvested, and makes us nostalgic for holidays past. But how much do we pay for the gas to drive to the tree farm (or for the tree lot people to bring it to the city from the country)? How much energy is used for its disposal? How much water do we need to feed it to keep it fresh for several weeks?
A fake tree can certainly be cheaper over the long term, and in the past it's actually been sold as a "greener" alternative. But where are these trees shipped from? Probably China. How much petroleum went into the production of the trees? How much fuel was used to ship it (in its box) to the U.S.? And then there's the gas you use to shop for it.
Then we can consider the softer, less measurable features. For example, what about the health effects of chemicals used to make the fake tree or grow the real tree? What about the combustibility of fake trees? What's the impact on the U.S. economy of either option? And does a real tree affect your allergies? Fake trees are certainly the least hassle-free alternative. But what about those happy memories being created when a family makes an annual trip together to pick out a Christmas tree?
The National Christmas Tree Association charges that real trees are more environmentally beneficial because they are lead free, PVC free, carbon neutral, biodegradable, replenishable, and natural. (Click on the link to see its comparison between the two options.) Nonrenewable petroleum and metals go into production of artificial trees, releasing toxic dioxins into air and water.
I asked my friend Brandy Wilson, manager of my firm's Environmental Management System, for her opinion on the subject: “I come down on the side of real trees. They benefit U.S. jobs, providing social and economic sustainability, and they are a renewable resource. Real trees absorb some carbon while alive, even if much of that benefit is lost during harvest and transport. Fake trees have a heavy carbon footprint from birth to death and beyond in a landfill.” Brandy also sent me links to two excellent articles about organic Christmas trees and the live vs. fake debate.
Obviously, the greenest option is a live tree that can be planted outdoors later. Or no tree at all. But I would argue that having a real tree provides a wonderful opportunity for children and adults to feel a connection to nature during this festive season.
In Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, we are very fortunate to have plenty of sustainably grown and harvested trees available and nearby. We can support local agriculture and the economy by purchasing real trees. If we mulch our trees for our gardens after we are done enjoying their natural perfume and splendor, even the better.
In the past few years, we have started a family tradition of going out to get our tree and then going to a historic McMenamin's Pub afterward for lunch (unfortunately, many others in the area have the same idea!). The kids love the tradition, and so do we. In fact, Kieran is very upset about us going to England this Christmas, because we are not going to get a tree this year. It's just not worth it, since we're leaving on Dec. 22 and returning on Jan. 5 (the prime Christmas tree period in our family!). We'll have to do a rosemary tree or something like that instead.
If you celebrate Christmas and are staying home and not traveling, enjoy inviting a little of the outdoors into your home this season. However, make sure you follow all the guidelines for tree safety!
Here are some photos from our 2006 jaunt into the sticks to get a tree (at a Christmas tree farm):