By Tricia Drevets
We got our Christmas tree on Saturday, and, once again, the wonderful smell of fresh evergreen fills my home, and once again, I head dutifully to the tree stand each morning to add more water.
A mild afternoon brought many customers to the lot we visited, and I saw many cars and pickup trucks laden with trees heading home throughout the weekend.
I grew up with two opposing viewpoints in terms of Christmas trees. My father lugged a massive box out of the basement each year and assembled a giant color-coded artificial tree in our living room. It looked pretty after it was all decorated, but the tree’s wire branches and stiff needles turned me off.
This reaction was partly because I also grew up watching – and loving – “A Charlie Brown’s Christmas.” In that classic Christmas cartoon starring the Peanuts characters, Charlie Brown and Linus pass up some garishly fake trees for a small, for a forlorn-looking fresh tree. After some TLC (okay, a lot of TLC), the little tree looks magical.
The image of that magical Charlie Brown Christmas tree has stayed with me though the years and, as a result, I have always had a “real tree” as an adult. However, this year, I noticed social media photos and news reports on the rising popularity of artificial trees. I decided to investigate.
After doing some research, it seems that a combination of factors have caused artificial trees to be making a comeback. The factors are rising fresh tree prices, the idea that an artificial tree is better for the environment than a cut tree, and the ease of purchasing and setting up a fake tree.
Let’s look at costs first. Thanks to both weather-related issues and a glut of certain types of trees in recent years, many Christmas tree growers cut back on their supply this year. This reduction led to shortages of certain types of trees and resulting higher prices. According to The Los Angeles Times, many West Coast residents are seeing a 10 percent increase in prices over last year.
The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) reports that the price of an average cut Christmas tree reached $51 in 2015 in the U.S, a 40 percent increase since 2008. Tree pricing depends on the height, condition and the type of the tree. Fraser firs cost more than Balsams, for example, because they tend to hold onto their needles longer and have stronger branches for ornaments.
Another factor influencing tree buying decisions for many familites is the tree’s impact on the environment. Is an artificial tree actually the “greener” choice?
According to research by the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), about 85 percent of American households with an artificial tree will reuse it and that the majority of those trees are reused for 11 years.
“ACTA encourages responsible consumerism,” said Jami Warner, ACTA executive director, in a press release. “We think consumers should consider the impact on the environment for every item they purchase, not just Christmas trees.”
However, the decision on which tree is better for the environment is not as easy as it may appear. Christmas tree growers, for instance, promote the fact that fresh trees can be reused or recycled after the holiday.
To get the word out about the positive aspects of a fresh tree, The Christmas Tree Promotion Board, a research program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, launched a national promotional campaign this year called "It's Christmas. Keep it real."
Real Christmas trees are biodegradable, and many communities have municipal programs or charitable programs that collect trees for mulch and other gardening purposes.
Finally, there is the ease of buying an artificial tree over a real tree. Artificial trees come in all shapes and sizes, and there are many designs that come fully assembled and decorated right out of the box.
This simplicity is appealing to many young urban dwellers who have limited space for a tree and little time to drive to a lot to get one.
The “Keep it real” campaign, launched November 15, has been targeted largely at millennials through social media. With two-minute video montages of young families picking out trees, pets playing near decorated trees and couples kissing in front of real trees, the campaign is selling the “Christmasy” experience of a real tree.
“Real Christmas trees are symbolic of this season of giving and sharing, and family gatherings,” Tom Dull, an Indiana Christmas tree grower who is president of the NCTA, said in a recent interview with The Chicago Tribune. “Nothing says Christmas better than the fresh scent, feel and texture of a real Christmas tree.”
The Christmas Tree Promotion Board reports that real trees are still edging out artificial trees out for spots in American homes – but just barely. The board says that 31 percent of Christmas tree buyers purchase a real tree, while 30 percent buy an artificial one. Another 25 percent of consumers go back and forth between real and fake, and the rest of those consumers surveyed say they don't have a Christmas tree each year.
NCTA research shows a bigger disparity in the numbers. Its 2015 study reveals that U.S. consumers bought nearly 26 million real trees last year as compared with 12.5 million artificial trees.
When deciding which tree is more environmentally friendly, here are some suggestions from the ACTA. First, consider “tree miles.” How far did the tree travel to get to your home? How far did you travel to get it? The organization recommends buying from local growers whenever possible.
Next, if you purchase an artificial tree, try to keep it in use for a minimum of six years. If you plan to replace an artificial tree that you already own, donate it rather than dispose of it.
Third, dispose of your fresh Christmas in a responsible manner. Find out if your community offers a holiday tree pickup program after the holidays. If not, see if there are organizations that have drop-off locations for tree recycling or mulching.
These programs chip and shred trees for garden mulch or use them as sand and soil erosion barriers.
Depending on the size of your property, you can also recycle your own tree. Cut Christmas trees can provide sanctuary for birds. According to Purdue University’s extension service, winter birds will use recycled trees for protective cover, and they will appreciate it if you “decorate” your used tree with a new kind of ornament – suet or pinecones smeared with peanut butter and then rolled in birdseed.
If you use your tree for this purpose, it will gradually decompose and then you can trim it to fit in your yard waste container.
Another option for a “green” Christmas tree is to purchase a living, rooted tree, which you can plant in your backyard or donate to a charitable organization looking for fresh trees.
And, now, you will have to excuse me. I think it’s time for my annual viewing of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”