Real vs Artificial: The Great Christmas Tree Debate
Naughty or nice? Gingerbread or fruitcake? Jingle bells or silver bells? There are a million little decisions to make during the holiday season, but one of the most crucial (and controversial!) concerns the Christmas tree: real or artificial?
Although real trees are the most traditional, more people are choosing artificial trees due to their convenience and cost savings. There are pros and cons to each, from environmental concerns to simple aesthetics. We’ve outlined some of the considerations below, along with tips on how to choose.
Real Christmas Trees
There are approximately 25-30 million trees sold in the United States each year, according to the Real Christmas Tree Association. Trees are grown in all 50 states (even Hawaii!). Piling the family in the car and heading out to pick out the perfect tree, whether from a Christmas tree lot or a cut-your-own spot in the mountains, is a timeless tradition, and there’s nothing like the scent of fresh pine or fir filling your home. Other pros include the following:
They’re renewable and recyclable. Real trees are a renewable resource, and for each farmed tree cut down, 1‑3 seedlings are planted in their place. They are typically grown on soil that is unfit for other crops. They can also be recycled; for example, turned into mulch or tossed into lakes or ponds to provide safe habitat for fish. More than 93 percent of all Christmas trees are recycled through city or community collection programs.
They’re good for the environment. Tree farms and forests provide habitat for wildlife and safe nesting areas for birds. During their growth, they photosynthesize like any other plant, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. In some states, residents are allowed to cut their own trees on public lands, which helps thin the forests, thus improving their health and reducing fire risk. They are also biodegradable, returning nutrients to the soil.
They support the local economy. There are nearly 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the United States, employing more than 100,000 people, according to the Real Christmas Tree Association. This doesn’t take into consideration the many people involved in packing, shipping and distributing said trees. In El Dorado County alone, there are nearly two dozen Christmas tree farms.
Cons to Real Christmas Trees
Cost. Real Christmas trees are only good for one season, where artificial trees last year after year. Depending on where you purchase your tree, the costs can add up.
Effort. Real Christmas trees require a bit more work. They must be trimmed and watered, and their needles may need to be swept up from time to time.
Safety. If not watered properly, real Christmas trees can dry out quickly, presenting a fire hazard, especially if strung with lights that emit heat.
Health. Some Christmas tree farms may use hazardous pesticides. In addition, those with severe allergies may find the pollen and mold found in a real tree triggers their symptoms.
Where to Get Real Christmas Trees
Green Acres. With locations in Sacramento, Elk Grove, Folsom, Roseville and Rocklin, there’s bound to be a Green Acres near you. They have Noble Firs and Silver Tips in all sizes, as well as living Christmas trees you can replant at the end of the season.
Indian Rock Tree Farm. Located in Camino, this friendly spot has several varieties, including Blue Spruce, Incense Cedar and Douglas Fir. You can spend the day traipsing through the woods to find the perfect tree, which they’ll gladly cut for you.
Silveyville Tree Farm. This tree farm in Davis has more than 15,000 trees in five different species to choose from. They also bring in thousands more trees fresh-cut from Oregon. There’s a fire pit with hot cider and coffee, plus a gift shop where you can pick up some seasonal items for those on your list.
Tahoe National Forest. For a $10 fee, you can trek into the Tahoe National Forest and cut your own tree. Only certain areas are allowed, but you can view maps before you purchase your permit online. Also, check out our tips for cutting your own Christmas tree.
Artificial Christmas Trees
No mess, no headaches, no stress: it’s no surprise that most Americans choose artificial trees over real trees. In fact, in 2019, a Nielsen survey showed that 81 percent of Christmas trees displayed in the home were artificial, according to the American Christmas Tree Association. Following are other pros to choosing an artificial tree.
Variety. Artificial trees come in all shapes, sizes and colors. In fact, options range beyond just flocked or unflocked these days, as they are available in every color of the rainbow, and the rainbow itself. There are patriotic trees in red, white and blue; bright pink Christmas trees; and aluminum vintage-style Christmas trees. If you want to be really different, check out this upside-down Christmas tree or whimsical, bendable tree ala The Grinch.
Cost. Real Christmas trees cost an average of $78, and while artificial trees can range anywhere from $40 to over $1,000, depending on size and quality. However, factor in the longevity of an artificial vs a real tree, and artificial trees come out ahead price-wise. A $100 artificial tree, for example, has a life span of about 10 years. In the same time, you’d spend $780 on purchasing a real tree each year. The exception is for those who choose to cut their own tree on public land; permits range from $5‑10 depending on where you go.
Convenience. Hands down the winner on the convenience factor are artificial trees. Most come pre-lit, so you don’t have to hassle with stringing lights. They don’t require watering or trimming, and at the end of the season you just pack it back up and store it. Plus, you won’t be finding rogue pine needles in your carpet for months afterward!
Safety. Unlike real Christmas trees, artificial trees are typically flame-retardant or flame-resistant, meaning they’re less likely to catch fire should a wire spark or a bulb overheat. They are also safer in terms of ornaments; their boughs do not become brittle but remain strong, reducing the likelihood of dropped (and smashed) ornaments. Cats are also less likely to pounce on an artificial tree, thus cutting the toppling risk.
Cons to Artificial Christmas Trees
Non-recyclable. Artificial trees are typically made from PVC, a petroleum-based, non-renewable resource. Although most people use their trees for as long as a decade, it will remain in a landfill indefinitely. Some manufacturers, however, use recycled materials in their products, reducing the overall carbon footprint.
Toxicity. The PVC used to make artificial Christmas trees has been deemed toxic by many environmental groups, some of which have called for its boycott. PVC can contain toxic compounds such as lead and phthalates, and can release volatile organic compounds, which is why it’s recommended to off-gas your tree outdoors prior to setting it up inside. It is estimated that 85 percent of artificial trees are made in China, where environmental regulations are notoriously lax. That said, there are some eco-friendly manufacturers based in the U.S.
Where to Get Artificial Christmas Trees
California Backyard. With locations in Sacramento, Elk Grove, Roseville and Gold River, you’re sure to find the perfect Christmas tree. They have every imaginable style, from snow-dusted to pre-lit with colorful crystal LEDs. Their life-like trees are softer than other artificial trees and come with a 15-year warranty.
Emigh’s Outdoor Living. This family-owned shop in Sacramento has a large selection of pre-lit trees in their “Christmas Wonderland” lifelike tree lot. They also do custom-decorated trees with themes like Rustic Woodlands and Elf Central. You can also pick up décor and ornaments, and all the supplies you need at Emigh Hardware next door.
Pottery World. This expansive indoor-outdoor home store in both Rocklin and El Dorado Hills has artificial trees in all shapes and sizes, including flocked and pre-lit. While you’re there, you can also pick up all the decorations you need to make the holidays bright, from nutcrackers to angels, Santas to reindeer.