Each year around the holidays, the debate flares again: real Christmas tree or artificial tree? Which is healthier? Better for the environment? Which is better if you’re trying to save money during the holidays?
According to a survey conducted by the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), in 2018, 82% of Christmas trees on display in the United States were artificial, while 17.9% were real.
The numbers show that U.S. consumers overwhelming prefer artificial trees. But real trees can evoke feelings of romance and nostalgia you just don’t get with an artificial tree. There’s something magical about weaving your way through a maze of evergreens, breathing in the heady scent of balsam or pine while you search for just the right tree for the holidays. With that kind of imagery in mind, who wouldn’t want a real tree, right?
However, the answer to which type of tree is best isn’t so clear. Factors like short- and long-term cost, allergens, and environmental concerns all play in role in the decision-making process. So do what Christmas trees and the holidays mean to you and your family.
The History of the Christmas Tree
According to the History Channel, evergreen plants and trees have been revered by humans since the dawn of time. Early people hung evergreen boughs above their doors because they believed they kept away evil spirits, ghosts, witches, and illness.
Historians credit Germany with starting the Christmas tree tradition when, in the 16th century, Christians began to bring live evergreens into their homes and decorate them. The tradition was first recorded in the U.S. in the 1830s when German settlers in Pennsylvania put up trees for the holidays. However, at that time, other colonists saw the trees as pagan symbols, and it wasn’t until the 1890s that Christmas trees became popular.
According to the University of Illinois, a company called Addis Brush made the first artificial Christmas trees in the early 1930s. They were in the business of making toilet scrubbers and brushes, so the first fake trees were really nothing more than gigantic green toilet bowl scrubbers.
Since their invention, artificial trees have gained widespread popularity for many reasons. It’s commonly believed that buying an artificial Christmas tree saves money. You invest the money once and use the tree year after year. Plus, you help the environment by saving a tree from being cut down.
So buying an artificial tree over a real one is a better choice, right? Well, not really. There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the real versus fake debate.
Real Christmas Trees: Pros & Cons
Real Christmas trees can add life and a pleasant scent to your home during the holidays. But they aren’t the best choice for every family.
Pros of Real Christmas Trees
1. They Support U.S. Farmers
When you purchase a live tree, you’re helping support a U.S. farmer and all the people they employ. According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), there are over 15,000 Christmas tree farms located in all 50 states, and these farms employ over 100,000 people.
Artificial trees primarily come from China, which produces 80% of all artificial trees sold in the United States. But when you buy a real tree, you’re helping people right here at home.
2. They’re a Renewable Resource
Some people assume they’re doing the environment a favor by not cutting down a real tree. But the NCTA also says that, on average, real Christmas trees grow seven years before they’re big enough to cut down. That’s seven years the tree produces oxygen and scrubs the air of carbon dioxide.
Each year, there are over 350 million Christmas trees growing across the country on 350,000 acres of land. This land preserves green space and provides a home for birds and other wildlife. Once a tree is cut down, a farmworker plants one to three seedlings in its place for the next year.
3. It’s Fun to Hunt for the Perfect Tree
Going out to find your own tree is fun and can help reduce and relieve holiday stress. Each tree is unique in its own way, and the time you spend finding your “perfect tree” creates memories with friends and family.
That’s especially true if you head out to a Christmas tree farm and cut down your own tree. During the holiday season, these farms often have other attractions, like bonfires, wagon rides, caroling, and a market selling handmade or locally baked goods.
Cons of Real Christmas Trees
1. Some People Are Allergic
Real Christmas trees carry mold spores that cause allergic reactions in some people. Potential reactions include sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, sinus congestion, shortness of breath, and an itchy nose.
According to a study published in 2011 in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, Christmas trees can carry up to 50 different types of mold spores, 70% of which can cause hay fever symptoms. And the longer the tree is up, the higher the indoor mold counts climb. The researchers found that levels of airborne mold spores in an apartment went from 800 per cubic meter before the introduction of a live tree to 5,000 spores per cubic meter after 14 days with a live tree.
The ACTA suggests taking two steps to reduce the allergens in your tree. Before you take it inside, shake as much debris as you can out of it. Then, rinse the tree thoroughly with a water hose and leave it out to dry overnight.
2. They’re a Fire Hazard
If you don’t water a real Christmas tree regularly, it can dry out and become a dangerous fire hazard.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), between 2013 and 2017, U.S. fire departments responded to a yearly average of 160 home fires that started with a Christmas tree. These fires caused an average of three deaths, 15 injuries, and $10 million in damage.
This video of a burn test conducted by the NFPA shows just how quickly a dried-out real tree catches fire and gets out of control compared to a well-watered tree, which burns much more slowly.
To prevent a home fire during the holidays, always keep a real tree well watered and make sure it’s kept well away from open flames like candles or a fireplace. Inspect all holiday lights to ensure there are no exposed wires or faulty bulbs that might cause a spark.
Artificial Christmas Trees: Pros & Cons
Walk into big-box stores like Home Depot or Target during the holidays, and you’ll see row after row of beautifully decorated artificial trees. They don’t have funny shapes or holes in the branches, and you don’t have to buy one year after year. But they do come with downsides that are absolute deal breakers for some families.
Pros of Artificial Trees
1. They’re Less Work
Most people agree that artificial trees are just easier to deal with. Many artificial Christmas trees now come pre-lit, so you don’t have to spend time untangling and stringing lights. You don’t have to water them every day, and you don’t have to spend time cleaning up dropped needles like you do with a real tree.
You also don’t have to worry about how you’re going to dispose of an artificial tree after Christmas since it can just be packed away and stored until next year.
2. They’re Less Expensive – Sometimes
Artificial trees are less expensive in the long term because they’re reused each year and can last a lifetime if they’re well taken care of. A typical artificial tree costs $100 to $200, but if you purchase one after Christmas when they’re marked down 50% to 75% or more, or if you find a used one at a thrift store, it can cost significantly less.
Real trees are purchased each year, and according to PBS, the cost for these trees keeps going up. In 2015, a real tree cost an average of $64, going up to $73 in 2017.
Costs for real trees keep climbing for several reasons. Wildfires and hurricanes have affected tree farmers in recent years, and many farmers are leaving the industry. USA Today reports that in Oregon, the top Christmas tree-producing state in the nation, there were 699 registered tree farms in 2010, but by 2018, this number had gone down to 392.
While costs for real trees keep going up, artificial trees will be more expensive in 2019 too. The Trump administration currently imposes a 25% tariff on artificial trees from China, along with twinkle lights and other holiday decorations.
Cons of Artificial Trees
1. They’re Unhealthy for Us
Manufacturers make artificial trees with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, aluminum, and steel. PVC is fire-resistant but can contain especially harmful chemicals, like arsenic, lead, and phthalates, which are recognized endocrine disruptors.
Lead is dangerous for anyone, but it’s particularly harmful to young children, who are often tempted to put tree fronds in their mouths. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health found artificial trees containing lead were in up to 50 million American homes. Researchers studying the toxicity of these artificial trees found that while the average artificial tree does not present a significant exposure risk, in the worst-case scenario, the exposure risk for young children was quite substantial.
And it’s almost impossible to know which chemicals are in your artificial tree because there’s so little oversight.
Men’s Health interviewed Dr. Bruce Lanphear, professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, who said that over three-quarters of chemicals used in consumer products have not been sufficiently tested for toxicity, so they’re assumed to be safe. But that’s a big assumption, especially when you’re dealing with chemicals in products coming from China, where there’s even less oversight than the United States.
Artificial trees, when new, release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that over the short term can cause headaches, dizziness, eye, and respiratory tract irritation. Over the long term, they can cause fatigue and nausea, as well as damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. They can even cause cancer. You can reduce the VOCs in a new tree by taking it out of the box and leaving it outside to air out as long as possible.
2. They’re Bad for the Environment
Artificial trees have a big carbon footprint because they’re produced in a factory and then travel by ship, plane, and truck to big-box stores in the United States. There’s also the cardboard packaging needed to box up the tree.
While real trees can be recycled, artificial trees can’t. Ultimately, they end up in a landfill. According to the Christmas Tree Farmers of New York, one artificial tree adds 100 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
The Los Angeles Times interviewed William Paddock, the managing director of WAP Sustainability Consulting in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He says real trees use fewer resources overall to get into the hands of consumers. However, artificial trees can make less of an environmental impact if you use them at least six to nine years before buying another one.
3. They’re a Fire Hazard
Dried-out real Christmas trees are an obvious fire hazard, but so are artificial trees. Over time, artificial trees collect dust, which can be highly flammable. Although manufacturers spray them with fire retardants, they can still ignite.
If you just look at the numbers, it’s clear that choosing an artificial tree is less expensive over time than choosing a real tree. And they definitely require less work. However, real trees don’t contain harmful chemicals like lead or fire retardants, and they evoke more of the sense of the holiday for some people because they smell so good.
If you’re balking at the price of a real Christmas tree, you’ll pay less if you wait. PBS reports that prices for real trees are lowest the week before Christmas, with the absolute lowest prices on Christmas Eve.
What type of tree are you going to put up this year? Why?