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With Thanksgiving and Black Friday in the rearview mirror, it’s now officially Christmas season for those who celebrate the holiday. For an estimated 95 million U.S. households, that means facing the question that has vexed families for decades: whether to use a real Christmas tree or an artificial one.
The popularity of artificial trees may seem like a modern phenomenon, but they date back as far as the 1880s, when German families would create fake trees out of feathers. In fact, there’s some evidence that makeshift trees were in use in America before natural ones.
Today roughly 80 percent of Christmas trees displayed in the United States are artificial, according to a group that represents tree manufacturers. Despite that disparity, there are still between 25 million and 30 million real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. each year.
Why there’s debate
Part of the reason debate over real and fake trees has persisted is that each has its merits. Real trees are, for lack of a better word, real. That authenticity, plus the fun of choosing one, are an indispensable part of the holiday for some people. Artificial trees are easier to set up, don’t make a mess and end up being a cheaper option if they’re used more for more than one year — especially given the recent spike in real tree prices.
An increasingly important factor in the decision for many people is the environmental impact. Even though they’re used for a few weeks, cut trees have a smaller footprint because they pull carbon dioxide from the air while growing, can be bought from local farms and can be repurposed after the holidays. Artificial trees, which can’t be recycled, need to be used for several years before their impact becomes smaller than natural trees.
The millennial generation is seen by some in the industry as a potential savior for tree growers, who have been struggling as artificial trees rise in popularity. Millennials' environmental consciousness and their urge for a picturesque Instagram scene have been credited with an uptick in natural tree sales in recent years.
Keep it real
It’s not really Christmas without a real tree
“The tradition, the piney scent, the realistic imperfection, just keep outweighing the ‘insert branch J into slot J’ assembly process of artificial.” — Robert Price, Bakersfield.com
Real trees don’t contribute to deforestation
“Most Christmas trees aren’t cut from a forest (or if they are, avoid them). Rather, Christmas trees are a planted and farmed crop that can and should be harvested to make way for a new crop next year.” — Erica Sweeney, SF Gate
Real trees can be repurposed
“I'll tell you the natural tree is going to be far better for the environment because it’s totally recyclable.” — Forestry expert Chal Landgren to KGW8
The life cycle of a fake tree leaves a large carbon footprint
“Most of the artificial trees on the market are made of PVC and steel in China and shipped to the United States — and eventually sent to a landfill.” — Karen Zraick, New York Times
Fake is fine
Artificial trees are more flexible
"Opting for artificial offers the freedom to start decorating as early as you please — no worries about drying needles — and to set up several trees throughout your house, thanks to the many sizes available on the market, from miniature table-toppers to 10-foot-plus centerpieces.” — Robin Roenker, USA Today
Fake trees are more affordable
“It’s cheaper. Sure, you may shell out some serious cash when you make your initial purchase, but since you’re not having to pay for a new tree every year, you can get your money’s worth.” — Katie Psencik, Oklahoman
Real trees slowly degrade over the course of the season
“There is no good reason to have a dead tree in your house. It’s that simple. If said tree were a year-round feature of the home, growing and thriving with time, that would be one thing. It is entirely another to go out into the world, bring a dead thing back, and watch it wither in the corner of your living room for a few weeks.” — Chloe Foussianes, Town & Country
Real trees are a huge hassle
“These days, you brave enough rain, snow, sleet, and hail just making it to the office. Why give up part of your already-too-short weekend haggling prices on a misshapen Scotch pine that you have to cut, carry, ship, build, and decorate yourself? And then everything gets covered in sap.” — Nate Erickson, Esquire
Modern artificial trees look just like the real thing
“Given the advances in artificial tree design in recent years, consumers can easily choose a fake tree that mimics the precise look they’re going after, making for less of a trade-off in aesthetics for the convenience of an artificial tree than in the past.” — Jacob Passy, Marketwatch
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Paolo De Santis/EyeEm/Getty Images