The Truth About Real and Artificial Christmas Trees

There are few debates more lively and spirited than that age old argument about which type of Christmas tree is “better”: real trees, or artificial trees. Ever since the first feather Christmas trees were developed in the late 19th century, a serious divide has developed between those who swear by real Christmas trees, and those who prefer artificial trees. These debates have produced a number of untruths about both types of trees that are still widely believed, and make it more difficult for families to make an informed decision about what type of Christmas tree is best for them.

Read on to learn the truth behind a few of the most common Christmas tree myths.

The Truth About Real and Artificial Christmas Trees

Are Real Christmas Trees Cut Down From Forests?

A small number of wild trees are cut down to be used as Christmas trees. However, in federal forests, this type of removal is strictly regulated by the U.S. Forest Service, which limits the number of trees that can be removed. The remainder of such trees are cut down on private land by individuals who prefer to cut down their own Christmas trees.

The vast majority of Christmas trees are grown on farms–much like any other crop–specifically for the purpose of being harvested for Christmas trees. These trees wouldn’t exist in the first place, if it wasn’t for the public demand for Christmas trees.

Are artificial Christmas trees harmful to the environment, and do they contribute to global warming?

In 2010, PE International, a consulting company that studies environmental sustainability in numerous industries, did an analysis of the environmental impact of artificial Christmas trees, versus real trees. The study found that, depending on how a real tree is disposed of, an artificial tree would only have to be used for 3.6 to 4 years before there was a net benefit with regard to contribution to global warming. This means that if a household uses an artificial tree for at least 4 years, its carbon footprint (with regard to Christmas trees) will be smaller than that of a household that purchases a real tree every year.

In addition, the study found that with both real and artificial trees, no matter how they were ultimately disposed of, Christmas trees accounted for less than 0.1% of the average person’s annual carbon footprint. This means that the environmental impact is negligible, and can easily be offset by other lifestyle changes, such as driving less, recycling more regularly, purchasing items that use less packaging, etc.

Do real Christmas trees trigger allergies?

Plant-related allergies are typically triggered by the pollen produced by such plants. This is why spring is often referred to as “allergy season,” as the burst of warm weather in April and May triggers the reproduction cycle in many plant species, including tree species commonly used as Christmas trees. But by late November and early December, when such trees are harvested, pollen production has long since ceased. This means that most people with pollen allergies will not be bothered by real trees, except for those are sensitive enough to be bothered by trace amounts.

However, real trees can carry dust, as well as molds and fungi. The best way to deal with this is by cleaning the tree before you bring it into your home. Use your garden hose to spray down the tree, and then leave the tree somewhere warm to dry for about 24 hours. Once it’s dry, then you can bring it into your home. As an added precaution, you can try running an air purifier in the room where the tree is located.

Additionally, there is a very small percentage of the population that is allergic to tree sap. In this case, the only real solution is to only purchase artificial trees for your home, and avoid close proximity to real Christmas trees.

Are artificial Christmas trees “traditional”?

Some avid real tree fans look at artificial trees with a cynical eye and consider them to be yet another sign of the recent commercialization of Christmas. However, Christmas trees as a whole were a relatively late fad in the United States. This is largely due to the fact that Christmas trees are a largely Germanic tradition, dating back to the 1500s. The tradition remained largely confined to that region for several centuries, until German immigrants brought the tradition with them to America in the 1700s and early 1800s. In fact, the first written records of Christmas trees being used in (what would become) the United States date back to the 1740s, when the children of German settlers in Pennsylvania decorated wooden pyramids with evergreen branches and affixed candles to the branches. The first Christmas trees in America were in fact artificial.

Christmas trees actually didn’t gain notoriety outside of German households until the 1830s, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, both of German descent, brought the tradition of the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in the 1830s (though this didn’t gain the attention of the public until the late 1840s). It was only after this that the public’s appetite for Christmas trees took off.

As the old tradition experienced a resurgence in Germany during this time, some started to worry about the potential deforestation of German forests. This led to the development of reusable feather trees, which were made out of dyed goose feathers bound together with wire and attached to a wooden pole. These artificial trees quickly made their way to the United States, and over subsequent decades evolved into the sturdier plastic artificial trees that we know today.

In the end, history shows that both real and artificial trees are deeply rooted in the history of Christmas, both here and abroad. Neither is more “Christmas-y” than the other. Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine what type of tree best suits you and your family’s Christmas traditions.