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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.