Know Before You Grow: The Great Christmas Tree Debate

By Marcus McCartney

Special to the Times

Is it too early to write about Christmas? This year, I think not since I’m already seeing the shelves at stores stocked with Christmas decorations and gift baskets. Also, a potential “toy shortage” has been hitting all the news outlets as of late. Since this is our last article of year, I feel it’s definitely not too early to write about Christmas and one the of the greatest holiday debates of all-time, which is best, real or artificial Christmas trees.

Real trees have a very long and significant history. Before the birth of Christ evergreen tree were used to celebrate the winter. The first decorated Christmas tree reportedly appeared in the Baltic region of Latvia in Northern Europe around 1510 and the first printed reference to Christmas trees appeared in Germany in 1531. By the early 1900s, retail stores began displaying big Christmas trees and in 1933, Rockefeller Center in New York City began its Christmas tree tradition.

Artificial trees were first developed in Germany during the 19th century. These trees were made using goose feathers that were dyed, attached to wire branches and then wrapped around a central dowel rod. In 1930, the U.S. based Addis Brush Company, created artificial trees using the same machinery used to manufacture toilet brushes. The popular mid-20th century aluminum artificial Christmas trees were first produced in Chicago in 1958. The aluminum tree popularity died down in the late 1960s, however in recent years, collectors have been buying and selling the trees, especially on online auction web sites which have created a small reemergence. Today, most artificial trees are made from PVC plastic and imported to the United States.

For myself, I grew up with an artificial Christmas tree but for the past nine years I went “real” and never looked backed. The reason I never looked back is there are economic, social, environmental and safety advantages to real Christmas trees compared to artificial ones.

Buying a real Christmas tree can have significant economic benefits. When you buy a real tree, more often than not, the tree comes from a local tree farm. Your money stays within your area; making for a stronger community. There are more than 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the US with approximately 350 million trees currently growing. In 2012, 24.5 million trees were sold with a market value of $1.01 billion dollars. A majority of today’s artificial trees are manufactured in foreign countries, like Taiwan, Korea, and China. China itself manufactures 80% of the worldwide demand.

Real Christmas trees have substantial environmental benefits as well. On average, trees are harvested for Christmas anywhere from five to fifteen years in age. During this time, they provide oxygen for us to breathe (an acre of Christmas trees will provide enough daily oxygen for 18 people), remove dust and pollen from the air, provide habitat for wildlife, help purify groundwater, and help control soil erosion. Also, when real Christmas trees are discarded, they can be used for sand and soil erosion barriers or can be placed in ponds for fish shelter. Since real Christmas are natural, they will breakdown rapidly whereas artificial trees will last centuries in landfills and take up space. On average, artificial trees are replaced about every six years.

Also, there can be many social benefits from real Christmas trees. Going to a Christmas tree lot or a U-cut Christmas tree farm can be a great family activity. It’s another way get to children involved with Christmas and gives them a sense of ownership in the selection process. Also, buying a “living” Christmas tree (ball and burlap tree) to plant after the holidays will bring many fond memories for years to come as the tree grows and enhances your landscape.

In terms of safety real trees are less likely to catch on fire than artificial trees if properly watered. In the unfortunate event of a Christmas tree catching fire, artificial trees give off toxic fumes whereas real trees do not.

Finally, with all of the sights and sounds of the holiday season the one thing that completes the magic of Christmas is filling your home with the fresh aroma of evergreen from a real tree.

For more information on real Christmas tree care or help in finding distributors, please contact your local extension office.

Marcus McCartney is the OSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator for Washington County. He has been with extension since 2014. Marcus received both his bachelor’s and Master’s degree from West Virginia University Agriculture Education.


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