The Great Christmas Tree Debate

Guest Post by Michelle Mather

Recently a friend of mine expressed surprise when I told her that we have a fake Christmas tree. I think she figured that given our usual “environmental” bent, we wouldn’t dream of buying a fake tree made of plastic and metal when the option is something real and made of renewable wood.

“The Great Christmas Tree Debate” was an ongoing discussion in our home about 20 years ago when our daughters were very young (they are 25 and 23 now.) When Cam and I first made a home together, we were in a small apartment and we usually spent most of the Christmas holiday season at his parents’ cottage or my parents’ home. It didn’t make sense to decorate a big tree back then and so we either decorated our Norfolk Island Pine houseplant or we used a small “fake” tree. After our girls joined our family, we eventually began to stay put for our Christmas celebration, and as they got old enough to take part in traditional Christmas activities, we started heading out to a Christmas tree farm and cutting our own tree. We drank hot chocolate and ate potato chips as part of our annual tradition and after enjoying the tree for as long as possible in our home, Cam always made good use out of it, adding the branches to our compost and cutting up the trunk to burn in our fireplace.

We felt a little guilty about cutting down a tree every year and so we began debating whether or not a real or fake tree was the better choice from an environmental perspective.

The debate went on for a few years with no clear winner until finally one year we decided that we couldn’t justify killing a tree every year. That year I headed out to the mall on Boxing Day (December 26th) to take advantage of the half-price sales on fake Christmas trees. I found a beautiful tree that had been $149 and I paid $75 for it. At the time a real tree was costing us about $15/year or so, and so I figured that my investment of $75 would be paid off after about 5 years of use.

That was about 18 years ago. Every year we unpack our fake tree, set it up and unfold the branches and arrange them to look as natural as possible. I have just the right number of ornaments to fit our tree and I know that I can make one side flat enough to push it up against the wall, since our ongoing accumulation of books (and bookshelves!) hasn’t left much room for our annual tree.

Now that we live in the country and have 150 acres of trees to choose from, you might think that we would have returned to using a real tree in our home. We actually did so one year when Cam came in from the woods one early December day and announced that he was planning on cutting down a small white pine tree since it was in a bad location. He suggested that since he was going to cut it down anyway, he could wait until closer to Christmas and we could use it as our Christmas tree that year.

I agreed, since I miss the smell of a real tree in our home and thought it would be nice to enjoy a real tree again. Needless to say, since the tree hadn’t been pruned for use as a Christmas tree, it was pretty spindly and I wasn’t able to fit many of our ornaments on it. The wonderful pine scent didn’t last very long and I had forgotten how much effort it takes to keep a real tree watered, especially once the base of it was surrounded with gifts and it was difficult to access the tree stand.

Soon after Christmas was over, the needles of the real tree began to drop and so it was time to undecorate it and get it out of the house. As I removed the few ornaments I realized that many of them had tree sap on them and so I had to clean them off as I removed them from the tree. Yuck! Our experience that year reminded me of all of the benefits of our fake tree.

Not to say that we haven’t had “issues” with our fake tree from time to time. One year Cam decided that the woodshed, where he had been storing our fake tree, was getting too crowded and so he decided to store our fake tree up in the rafters of the horse barn. We had a horse and a donkey using the horse barn that year, but he was able to tuck the tree up high where they couldn’t reach it.

That Christmas he dragged the big box in and unpacked the tree. I performed my usual task of unfolding the branches and arranging them nicely. As the tree warmed up in the heat of the house, I began to notice an unusual aroma emanating from it. Apparently Cam hadn’t given any thought to the smell of manure that the tree had been exposed to. Needless to say, we burned a lot of scented candles that year in our efforts to mask the smell of our “horsey” tree!

Cam went back to storing the tree in our woodshed. One year as I unpacked the tree and arranged the branches I came across a “nest” that a mouse had made with pink insulation that was tucked in the middle of the tree. I very carefully disassembled the nest, expecting a mouse or some babies to jump out at me at any moment, but luckily I don’t think that the mouse ever finished this nest and there was no sign that it had ever been inhabited.

After all of these years of the Great Christmas Tree Debate, I don’t believe that we have come up with a definitive answer yet. One day our fake tree will be old and worn out and it may end up in a landfill. Real trees just decompose naturally and enrich the soil. My only advice is that if you are going to buy a fake tree, be sure to buy a good quality one, that should last for many years. Or perhaps it’s time to forget the “real vs. fake” debate and consider a re-usable tree made of birch plywood as seen here; It’s very chic but a little pricey…..

* * * * * * *

Larry in Alabama sent us some photos of his amazing tree and so I asked him for permission to share them with you. He says “My tree is made from old utility and hose spools, stacked and painted green. This gives us shelves for photos, momentos, and decorations. On the plastic trees–if it’s PVC, then its flaking into the air; some plastic trees also have unsafe levels of lead.” Thanks for sharing with us Larry! I think your tree is really neat and my 23-year-old daughter likes it too!

9 Responses to “The Great Christmas Tree Debate”

  • Kathy:

    Many church groups will take old fake trees and make wreaths out of them to sell at their fundraisers….something to consider.

  • Hi Jeff! You make lots of great points and I think you are right… the fact that I am using an old fake tree makes me feel a little bit better about it. I’m not so sure I could bring myself to buy a new fake tree today, for lots of reasons. I hope that you didn’t think that I was coming out in favour of either side of the debate… I really don’t think there is a right answer. Despite your suggestion that growing Christmas trees is a farming activity like any other, I still wouldn’t feel right about cutting down a tree that has taken 7 years to grow to size, to use it for a couple of weeks at best.
    As for the Christmas tree being the festive version of the plastic diaper…. diapers are disposable…. one use only, whereas my tree has lasted 18 years and we’ll be using for many years to come. I think it’s safe to say that there’s probably more plastic in a year’s worth of disposable diapers than in one fake Christmas tree.
    Maybe it’s time for all of us to think outside the box, like Larry, and come up with a totally new Christmas tradition!

  • Jeff Marchand:

    Come on people! There should be no debate on which is better for the environment. How much air was cleaned in the making of your fake tree? How many birds perched on it or made a nest in its branches as it came off the factory line? How much toxic waste was created while growing a real tree? How many local people were employed in its manufacture? Where would you rather have an picnic, in the field where the real one grew or the parking lot of the fake Christmas tree factory?

    This idea that its OK to have a fake tree so you don’t have to cut down a real tree is madness. Growing Christmas trees is a farming activity just like your garlic enterprise. Only difference is the tree farmer has to wait 7 years before he gets paid. If fake plastic garlic existed would we have this debate? Furthermore just about every city collects and mulches old Christmas trees and uses them in municipal flower beds. These trees support life after we are done with them. Can you say the same for your fake trees?

    Compare : ” As I removed the few ornaments I realized that many of them had tree sap on them and so I had to clean them off as I removed them from the tree. Yuck! Our experience that year reminded me of all of the benefits of our fake tree.”

    ” “We tried cloth [diapers] and think it’s totally unrealistic.” …. And since no one wants a leaky diaper we then wrap those diapers in plastic liners. And where does that plastic come from? … Anyone, anyone?… Yes – oil. Did you watch TV last year? Did you see the Macondo oil well blow out in the Gulf of Mexico? And you say cloth diapers are unrealistic?” By Cam Mather

    So I have to ask you. Did you watch TV last year?
    Did you see the Macondo oil well blow out in the Gulf of Mexico?
    And you say there is a debate about which is better real tree or plastic?

    Now in all fairness since you have already bought a plastic tree I suppose you might as well keep using it and keep it out of the landfill as long as you can but please dont try to encourage others who read your blog that plastic trees are OK. They are the festive version of the plastic diaper.

  • We went through the same debate and ended up with a fake tree for pretty much the same reasons. It has served us very well for many a year now. I must congratulate Larry on his tree; I think that is so cool.

  • When we first got married my wife and I bought a live tree balled in burlap, but one small enough so that I could drag it across the floor in a galvanized wash tub. It was a wonderful tree. Soon after New Years I dragged it outside and planted it into a predug hole and filled in with unfrozen dirt I had saved in a bucket. Now, 40 years later, we live next door to the long-ago-sold family home, and our now 25 foot tall first Christmas tree is right over the fence where we see it every day of the year. It was a lot of work that year, but well worth the effort.

  • I have long wondered about the possibility of having a potted Christmas tree that could just be moved into the house for the season and re-potted as needed until such a time as it got too big for the house when it would finally be transplanted to the garden. If it wasn’t too traumatic an experience for the tree then people could just “rent” a real tree each year.

  • Heidi:

    Thank you Larry, for letting Michelle post pictures of your tree!

    It’s the coolest tree I’ve ever seen, while at the same time, it is filled with peace and grace.

    Very inspiring!

  • Using individual boughs to get that “Christmas tree smell” is a great idea. Happy New Year to you!

  • Cathy:

    I use to put my christmas trees outside after christmas and fill them with dried fruit, and suet for several years. The trees lost their needles and the trunks became fire wood or bird house posts. Then I bought living Christmas trees for two years and quickly realized I didn’t have enought property to go into forestry, but the birds love them. Now I’ve had my $75.00 artificial “After Christmas” sale tree 5 years. I bring boughs in for the smell. My tree can be any height up to 8″ tall. I’ve even had half a tree flat against the wall to save space. It is paid for, clean, and will be used for as long as I last, or longer through an estate sale someday. The birds don’t mind and neither will I. Happy New Year!

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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