Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

The Great Christmas Tree Debate

By Michelle Mather

Recently a friend of mine expressed surprise when I told her that we have a fake Christmas tree. I think she figured that given our usual “environmental” bent, we wouldn’t dream of buying a fake tree made of plastic and metal when the option is something real and made of renewable wood.

“The Great Christmas Tree Debate” was an ongoing discussion in our home about 20 years ago when our daughters were very young (they are 25 and 23 now.) When Cam and I first made a home together, we were in a small apartment and we usually spent most of the Christmas holiday season at his parents’ cottage or my parents’ home. It didn’t make sense to decorate a big tree back then and so we either decorated our Norfolk Island Pine houseplant or we used a small “fake” tree. After our girls joined our family, we eventually began to stay put for our Christmas celebration, and as they got old enough to take part in traditional Christmas activities, we started heading out to a Christmas tree farm and cutting our own tree. We drank hot chocolate and ate potato chips as part of our annual tradition and after enjoying the tree for as long as possible in our home, Cam always made good use out of it, adding the branches to our compost and cutting up the trunk to burn in our fireplace.

We felt a little guilty about cutting down a tree every year and so we began debating whether or not a real or fake tree was the better choice from an environmental perspective.

The debate went on for a few years with no clear winner until finally one year we decided that we couldn’t justify killing a tree every year. That year I headed out to the mall on Boxing Day (December 26th) to take advantage of the half-price sales on fake Christmas trees. I found a beautiful tree that had been $149 and I paid $75 for it. At the time a real tree was costing us about $15/year or so, and so I figured that my investment of $75 would be paid off after about 5 years of use.

That was about 18 years ago. Every year we unpack our fake tree, set it up and unfold the branches and arrange them to look as natural as possible. I have just the right number of ornaments to fit our tree and I know that I can make one side flat enough to push it up against the wall, since our ongoing accumulation of books (and bookshelves!) hasn’t left much room for our annual tree.

Now that we live in the country and have 150 acres of trees to choose from, you might think that we would have returned to using a real tree in our home. We actually did so one year when Cam came in from the woods one early December day and announced that he was planning on cutting down a small white pine tree since it was in a bad location. He suggested that since he was going to cut it down anyway, he could wait until closer to Christmas and we could use it as our Christmas tree that year.

I agreed, since I miss the smell of a real tree in our home and thought it would be nice to enjoy a real tree again. Needless to say, since the tree hadn’t been pruned for use as a Christmas tree, it was pretty spindly and I wasn’t able to fit many of our ornaments on it. The wonderful pine scent didn’t last very long and I had forgotten how much effort it takes to keep a real tree watered, especially once the base of it was surrounded with gifts and it was difficult to access the tree stand.

Soon after Christmas was over, the needles of the real tree began to drop and so it was time to undecorate it and get it out of the house. As I removed the few ornaments I realized that many of them had tree sap on them and so I had to clean them off as I removed them from the tree. Yuck! Our experience that year reminded me of all of the benefits of our fake tree.

Not to say that we haven’t had “issues” with our fake tree from time to time. One year Cam decided that the woodshed, where he had been storing our fake tree, was getting too crowded and so he decided to store our fake tree up in the rafters of the horse barn. We had a horse and a donkey using the horse barn that year, but he was able to tuck the tree up high where they couldn’t reach it.

That Christmas he dragged the big box in and unpacked the tree. I performed my usual task of unfolding the branches and arranging them nicely. As the tree warmed up in the heat of the house, I began to notice an unusual aroma emanating from it. Apparently Cam hadn’t given any thought to the smell of manure that the tree had been exposed to. Needless to say, we burned a lot of scented candles that year in our efforts to mask the smell of our “horsey” tree!

Cam went back to storing the tree in our woodshed. One year as I unpacked the tree and arranged the branches I came across a “nest” that a mouse had made with pink insulation that was tucked in the middle of the tree. I very carefully disassembled the nest, expecting a mouse or some babies to jump out at me at any moment, but luckily I don’t think that the mouse ever finished this nest and there was no sign that it had ever been inhabited.

After all of these years of the Great Christmas Tree Debate, I don’t believe that we have come up with a definitive answer yet. One day our fake tree will be old and worn out and it may end up in a landfill. Real trees just decompose naturally and enrich the soil. My only advice is that if you are going to buy a fake tree, be sure to buy a good quality one, that should last for many years. Or perhaps it’s time to forget the “real vs. fake” debate and consider a re-usable tree made of birch plywood as seen here; It’s very chic but a little pricey…..

* * * * * * *

Larry in Alabama sent us some photos of his amazing tree and so I asked him for permission to share them with you. He says “My tree is made from old utility and hose spools, stacked and painted green. This gives us shelves for photos, momentos, and decorations. On the plastic trees–if it’s PVC, then its flaking into the air; some plastic trees also have unsafe levels of lead.” Thanks for sharing with us Larry! I think your tree is really neat and my 23-year-old daughter likes it too!



  1. Your tree looks lovely! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  2. Ken and Madeline Snider

    I find it hard to imagine a fake tree in your home, You do have some valid points but although I used to always buy a real one but now in the apartment we are back to a fake small tree.
    Loved the books and gave the extra one to our grandaughter who also is very enviromental conscious. Happy new Year.
    Ken and Madeline

  3. Robert

    I’ll second your point Michelle. I think it was the idea of the ‘real tree’ that held me for so many years. Reality and experience tells me that fake tree can go up early and stay up well into January. Frankly I don’t understand this urge to take the tree down on Boxing Day, what is the point of that. What is the hurry, it is dark and cold from now until April so lets keep the lights on. Although that is beside the point.

    Finally with a wood stove a fake tree is worth it just for the peace of mind. The what if’s can keep you coming back downstairs to check a real tree long into the night.

    • aztextpress

      Yes, I agree Robert… what’s the rush? We actually put our Christmas lights up quite early, for that very reason… it’s just sooo dark this time of year and we love the festive glow of our LED lights strung around the room. I generally don’t take my tree down until early in January, but we’ll be leaving our inside lights up for longer than that!

  4. Lorna

    An interesting blog Michelle, as I have been having the same debate, albeit internally. We once had a fake tree, which I loved for the convenience, but I missed the smell of “real”. Real trees are now getting quite expensive- $35 to $40 but lucky for us we found one on our own property. It to turned out to be quite spindly and would not hold many ornaments. Next year may find us using a fake once again….

    • aztextpress

      Sounds like you had the same experience as we did when trying to use a tree from your property that hadn’t been pruned!

  5. Mycelium

    Interesting that you posted on this topic, Michelle. I have grown up with a fake tree my whole life, except for the last two years that Mike was adamant that a real tree made Christmas feel magical. And I do agree with him, to some extent. Yes, the smell is fantastic, but it only lasts for a few days. Then, I am left with the gut-wrenching truth that we chopped down a tree (a plant that is VITAL to human existence) only to decorate it for a couple of weeks and then chuck it. And think of all the hundreds of thousands of people that are doing that every year with this twisted, sorely outdated tradition! There is also the issue of tree farms. On the one hand, the idea of them is wonderful (sure beats GMO-corn!!), but when trees are cut down and taken away from the land, it seriously depletes the soil, leaving the farmer no other option then to use synthetic fertilizers (which, I’m sure you know, contaminate the soil and water). Oi!
    I can’t, however, go back to a fake tree. The idea of them being manufactured in China, shipped over here only to leach chemicals into the air that my family breathes in, and then to sit in a landfill for forever … nope, I can’t do that either.
    So the Great Christmas Tree Debate ended a couple of days ago with us deciding on decorating a live, potted, Norwegian Pine next year. Sure it will be smaller, but in this society, I think we could all use a good scaling back!
    My two cents : ) Thanks for sharing yours!

    • aztextpress

      Thanks Krystle! Sounds like you’ve had the same discussions that we’ve had, and as I mentioned, I really don’t know the right answer, other than going without a tree! One thing that I didn’t mention in my blog but I was reminded of as I drove past a local store the other day. There must have been 20 unsold Christmas trees in their lot and every year I notice the same thing…. way too many unsold trees that were cut down and then not even used!

  6. Well you certainly chose the right title: The Great Christmas Tree DEBATE ….lol

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