Pine vs. PVC: How Real and Fake Christmas Trees Compare

iStock
iStock

Making the trek to a Christmas tree farm and picking out the perfect pine to brighten up your home is a cherished holiday tradition. Unless, of course, you belong to a family of artificial tree loyalists, in which case you may ring in the season by unloading plastic branches from the attic.

The fake-versus-real tree debate has only gotten more heated in recent years. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the number of artificial trees purchased in the U.S. rose from 11.7 million in 2009 to 18.6 million in 2016. Real trees still outnumber fake ones, but they’re gradually becoming less popular: Only 27.4 million real Christmas trees were brought home in 2016 compared to 28.2 million in 2009.

If you’re not committed to one tree over the other, choosing a camp to side with may feel overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be that way: Here are some factors to consider when selecting the best tree to deck your halls.

COST

Cost is a top priority to many families picking out a Christmas tree. Both varieties of tree vary in price based on size, quality, and vendor. But while most real Christmas trees fall in the $25 to $100 range, fake trees can get much more expensive. “There are literally hundreds of styles, brands, shapes, and sizes,” Jamie Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association (not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree Association), tells Mental Floss. “The price can be anywhere from $25 into the thousands.”

But even if you find a handsome real tree that’s cheaper than a fake one of similar size and quality, it’s not necessarily the better deal. One artificial tree can last you several seasons, making it cheaper than yearly trips to the tree farm in the long run.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

This may be the most controversial point in the great Christmas tree debate. Artificial trees, one side argues, are the more environmentally-friendly option because they can be used year after year. But according to real tree advocates, the carbon dioxide emitted during the production of one fake tree still outweighs the impact of several authentic ones. So what’s the smarter choice for tree-buyers who want to stay green?

If you’re on Team Artificial Tree, about seven years is the length of time you need to own one before you can claim it was an earth-conscious purchase. Even then, some would argue that eventually dumping it in a landfill cancels that out. Real trees, on the other had, are easily recycled. Many towns process the discarded trees that are collected at the end of the holiday season and use the chips as mulch for public gardens, cushion for hiking trails, and even as fuel to supplement the energy grid. When trees aren’t mulched, they can be re-used whole as underwater habitats, flood barriers, and stimulation for zoo animals.

There's also the issue of transportation. If the nearest Christmas tree farm is 40 minutes away while the closest department store is down the street, that adds to your carbon footprint. But according to Warner, there are better ways to be kind to the environment during the holiday season than stopping yourself from buying the tree you want. “If you really want to have an impact on your carbon footprint, try not driving for one day during the holidays,” he says.

SCENT

Sorry, fake Christmas tree fans: Nothing beats the smell of a fresh pine tree during the holidays. Of course, it is possible to replicate that festive aroma with scented artificial sprigs and Christmas tree spray, but if smell is really that important to you, why not go with nature’s best air freshener?

Of course, a house that reeks of authentic pine isn’t a plus for everyone. Some people may hate the scent, while others may have an allergic reaction to it. If that’s the case, an unscented plastic tree is the obvious choice.

SAFETY

It may look pretty, but electric lights wrapped around 7 feet of kindling isn’t the safest combination to have in the house. The National Fire Protection Association reports that U.S. fire departments respond to about 200 home fires that start with Christmas trees per year. Of course, that number looks small compared to the millions of households with real trees that make it through each season accident-free. To ensure you belong to the latter group, don’t forget this golden holiday rule: There must be water in your tree’s base at all times. Healthy, watered trees are less susceptible to flames, while dry trees are dangerously flammable.

Synthetic trees are less likely to burn your house down because most are made with a fire-resistant material called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). But while rare, fake tree fires have been known to happen, often due to malfunctions in old, built-in electrical wiring.

EFFORT

Cutting down, transporting, and decorating a tree may be an essential part of the holidays for some families, but for others it’s a hassle. If families have a tree waiting for them in storage, they may be less likely to wait until the last minute to put it up. The easiest artificial trees to set out open up umbrella-style and come with the lights built in. Other models require some assembly before they’re ready to decorate, but once you own one you can prepare it without ever leaving home.

Artificial trees continue to be low-maintenance throughout the holiday season, while real trees need to have the water in their stands refreshed once a day. Even after all that effort, owners are usually left with a mess of brown, dry needles by New Year's. Some municipalities will collect your old tree from the curb in late December/early January, but there are places where you may be required to go out of your way to make sure the tree is disposed of properly. With fake trees, clean-up is as easy as wrapping it in a bag and storing it in a dry place.

AESTHETIC APPEAL

There’s no reason to hold Christmas trees to a single set of beauty standards. The trees, whether real or fake, come in different forms to satisfy different tastes. Over-achievers may choose the biggest fir on the farm, while Charlie Brown fans may find something scrawnier endearing. On the artificial side, shoppers have even more options: There are upside down trees, fiber-optic trees, and even aluminum trees left over from their heyday in the 1960s. Christmas trees are meant to be decorative, so pick whatever suits your unique style best.

What’s the final word in the fake-tree-versus-real-tree saga? That whatever option you choose is between you and your family. So go ahead and buy the gaudiest, messiest, most high-maintenance tree you can find. If your feelings change, there’s always next year.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

How Gangsters and the Media Helped Make Trick or Treating a Halloween Tradition

Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

On Halloween night in 1934, a scene played out in Helena, Montana, that the local newspaper, the Helena Independent, related as though it were a scene out of a mafia confrontation [PDF]. A group of teenagers roughly 15 to 16 years old knocked on a woman’s door and asserted they were there for the purposes of trick or treating. When the woman refused their request, they opted for a third outcome—property damage. The kids smashed her birdbath.

The paper identified the group’s “leader” as “Pretty Boy” John Doe, a nod to Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a notorious gangster who had been killed in a police shootout just two weeks before. In media and in the minds of kids, the then-novel practice of trick or treating on Halloween was not quite innocent fun. It was emblematic of the public’s infatuation with civil disobedience and organized crime, and it would take no lesser positive influences than Donald Duck and Charlie Brown to make adults believe Halloween wasn’t merely a training ground for America’s youth to become hoodlums.

 

Trick or treating is a relatively new phenomenon in North America. The concept of going door to door and requesting candy on Halloween was virtually unheard-of prior to the 1920s, though it did have antecedents in ancient history. In the Middle Ages, following the Catholic Church’s re-appropriation of Celtic celebrations, kids would dress as saints, angels, and demons in what was known as “guising,” from “disguising.” These cloaked figures would go from one door to the next, requesting food or money in exchange for singing their benefactors a song or praying. This solicitation was known as “souling,” and children and poor adults who engaged in it were known as “soulers.”

Scottish and Irish immigrants likely brought guising over to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Around the same time, kids were in the habit of dressing up for other holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, and requesting money. When costumed events for Halloween became more prevalent and citywide celebrations were organized to help discourage kids from playing pranks, private groups began planning door-to-door visits in the 1920s. That’s when the disparate elements of costumes, mild pranks like ringing a doorbell and then running off, and getting treats all converged, seemingly taking a more sinister turn.

Early trick or treating was serious business.Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Writing in the American Journal of Play in 2011 [PDF], author Samira Kawash took a closer look at the rise in popularity of trick or treating and the seeming glorification of organized crime figures during the economically turbulent period of the 1930s. It’s little coincidence, Kawash wrote, that kids began to approach trick or treating as a form of extortion just as antiheroes achieved infamy in newspapers. The media reflected this influence, often writing of pranks in breathless terms. The threat of soaping windows if targets didn’t pay up in the form of treats was nothing more than a juvenile version of a mobster offering “protection” to a shopkeeper. Demands for candy could be considered a “shakedown.” The treats were “edible plunder.” Roving groups of costumed kids were “goon squads.” Some kids even bypassed requests for candy and demanded money instead.

In some parts of the country, the idea of making a choice between handing out food or suffering from a “trick” was new. In Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1938, a group of young boys told local police chief Paul Acton about their success. “We knock on the door,” one said, “and ask if they’d rather give us a treat, or have us dump over the garbage pail. Boy, have we been eating!”

The media took a critical approach to this new tradition, warning readers that such activities could be creating the criminals of tomorrow. Not everyone responded kindly to it, either. In Brooklyn, a school principal responded to a trick or treat offer by slapping a child across the face after he was admonished by a tyke to “hand it over or else.” Trick or treating had morphed from a pitiable request for charity to a sneering threat of property destruction in lieu of a candy bar.

 

Trick or treating began to lose some of its edge during World War II, when sugar rationing disrupted the entire concept of Halloween and vandalizing homes seemed especially cruel considering the global threat to democracy. In Reno, Nevada, in 1942, a school superintendent named E.O. Vaughn told principals and teachers to caution kids against knocking on doors, both because of the war and because it had a “tinge of gangsterism.” By the time candy had resumed normal production and the nation was no longer mired in war or a financial crisis, it had settled into something mostly innocent. (But not totally without mischief. In 1948, local police in Dunkirk, New York, advised adults to phone them when a group of kids was spotted so cops could “round up the children.”)

By the 1950s, trick or treating was less about property damage and more about having fun with friends.Joe Clark, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Helping restore the reputation of trick or treating were two familiar icons in popular culture. In 1951, Charles Schulz drew a series of Peanuts comic strips that featured Charlie Brown and his friends going door to door. (Peppermint Patty uses Charlie Brown’s head as inspiration for her pumpkin carving.) The strip, read by millions of people daily, normalized the practice. So did Trick or Treat, a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon that was released theatrically and featured Donald caught in a battle of tricks with nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

Further legitimizing the practice of demanding treats was the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or UNICEF, which provided boxes for kids to collect their sugary bounty as well as request spare change. The effort eventually raised $175 million and returned trick or treating to its more charitable origins.

Although Halloween has settled into a widely understood arrangement in which candy is distributed without any overt threat of birdbath-bashing, not everyone has abandoned the brute force aspects of the 1930s. According to data compiled by GateHouse Media and taken from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, there were 19,900 acts of vandalism on October 31 over a 10-year period from 2009 to 2018. Only New Year’s Day was more eventful, with 21,000 acts committed in the same timeframe. For many, Halloween is a time to collect treats. For others, it remains the season for tricks.