Portsmouth, NH
Partly Cloudy
5:22 am8:16 pm EDT
84°F / 59°F
81°F / 66°F
73°F / 66°F


The Christmas Tree Dilemma | Opinion

Credit: iStock

by Paul Doscher, New Hampshire Bulletin

Every year about this time articles appear in various places that try to answer some version of the Christmas tree question: “Which is the better choice, real of artificial?”

As a New Hampshire Christmas tree grower for the past 40 years, I know I’m biased and you can easily predict my answer to the question.

But I have lots of friends and some neighbors who have a different perspective. They make a list of pros and cons for real trees vs. plastic trees, and come to a different conclusion. Their pro-artificial list is not unreasonable.  

Pros include: No mess bringing the tree into the house and then later taking it down. If they keep it a long time, it saves them money over annually buying a real tree either at a pre-cut tree lot or on a local farm. I even know one friend who joked about installing her tree on a platform that would be lowered through a hole in the floor into the basement so she could decorate it once and just bring it back up every Christmas season! (She never did it.) And, of course, if you keep the artificial tree for a number of years, you can save money.   

OK, I get all this. And apparently so do lots of people in the U.S. According to the American Christmas Tree Association (the association of artificial tree manufacturers and sellers), of all the families that display a tree, 80 percent are artificial. Given that most Americans live in places where getting a fresh locally grown tree is not an option, this probably is to be expected.

But here in northern New England, we have ideal Christmas tree growing conditions, and there are dozens of small and large farms that produce fresh, real trees close by.

So that brings me to the “cons” of artificial trees. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, about 9 million artificial trees are shipped to the U.S. across the ocean each year from China.  That’s 85 to 90 percent of all the artificial trees sold. These trees are made of metal and plastic (derived from fossil fuels) and are not recyclable. Eventually they almost all end up in landfills where they reside for so long that no one really knows for sure when or if they degrade. And because of very weak environmental regulation in China, there’s no guarantee that the tree you buy won’t contain lead or other toxic residues, and that has resulted in California requiring consumer warnings on imported trees.

So, you ask, what about the fire danger? While some artificial trees are treated to be fire retardant, I wonder if that fire retardant isn’t another of those nasty PFAS chemicals we are all now very worried about.  

According to numerous studies, real trees are not a fire hazard if cared for properly. If you buy a precut real tree at a roadside stand and it was cut weeks prior to your purchase, it may dry out. To prevent this from happening quickly, keeping water in the tree stand at all times is essential. Checking the water daily, at least for the first week or so, is a must. 

But if you cut a fresh tree yourself (with family in attendance, of course!) and bring it home and put the base in water immediately, it will stay moist and green for weeks.  

Some worry that cutting trees is bad environmentally. Almost all analyses I’ve found say that’s not the case. Christmas tree growers have to plant more trees every year to keep their business sustainable, and most plant more than they cut. While the trees are growing (about 8 years in most cases) they provide clean air, wildlife habitat, and income to local farmers so they can afford to keep the land from being sold for development. And finally, real trees are entirely biodegradable. Whether you just throw it into the woods, chop it up, or the municipal waste service grinds them into mulch, they will not fill up our landfills.

After growing and selling Christmas trees for nearly four decades, I can say that the best reward is the arrival each season of local families who come with smiles on their faces to continue an annual tradition. My family and theirs have a few minutes to catch up on where the kids and grandkids are now, who has moved away or moved back, and who will be home for the holidays. They all say that cutting the real tree is a big part of their Christmas traditions. Going to a big box-store and coming home with a tree in a box just doesn’t have that nostalgia factor.

Finally, this is NOT a commercial for my own Christmas tree farm. By the time you read this we will have sold out our supply of trees for this season. Consider looking for the nearest local farm and start a tradition that will not just make for precious memories, but help support a local farmer and his or her family.

This story was written by Paul Doscher, a retired conservation professional and former professor, where this story first appeared.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.