Oh, Christmas tree!

Brian Jeffrey Beggerly/Flickr

Brian Jeffrey Beggerly/Flickr

All you need to start a little lively family warfare this holiday season is to lob into conversation the perennial conflict over real vs. artificial Christmas trees.

 On one hand are the traditionalists who wouldn’t be caught dead with a tree that isn’t recently cut, supple and scented. In the opposite corner are those who adamantly refuse to vacuum up needles, see virtue in “pre-lit” trees and come down heavily on the convenience factor.

At this point in the 21st century, the synthetic trees appear to be winning. According to people who keep track of these things, shining stars are hung upon the boughs of about 50 million artificial Christmas trees vs. 30 million real ones.

I believe in peace on earth (whenever possible) so I can’t be harsh at this time of year. But if you’re thinking that fake trees are “greener” because they spare the life of trees that would otherwise grow to maturity, that’s just dead wrong.

Christmas trees are a crop, like corn, soybeans or tomatoes, and no one gets in a twist when they are mown down and consumed. A great many Christmas tree farms not only occupy land unsuitable for edible plants, but are also family-run businesses employing some 100,000 Americans nationwide. While our food is grown mainly by huge conglomerates, Christmas trees are generally raised on rather small-scale farms and are community-oriented agricultural destinations, complete with hot chocolate and Santa if you’re lucky.

For every tree cut down to serve as the centerpiece of the holiday, two or three seedlings are planted in this self-sustaining enterprise. Yes, the trees may require irrigation but at least in New Jersey, most commercial growers have signed onto a statewide integrated pest management program so heavy dosing with pesticides is less of an issue. If you buy from a local farm, as most people do, transit costs are minimal. (Find a tree farm in your county at njchristmastrees.org.)

Tree farm    Ed Kennedy/Flickr

Tree farm    Ed Kennedy/Flickr

I’m a real tree person on several counts. I love the fresh, piney scent that is the true smell of Christmas and wouldn’t willingly be without it. It also satisfies my pagan soul to follow in the footsteps of our Norse and Germanic ancestors who first thought to drag an entire evergreen tree right into the house in the dead of winter. I like this!

I also minimize the post-season mess by outfitting my trees with a giant disposal bag that lies hidden under a pretty fabric wrap until it is draw up over the whole tree before it is carted outdoors, where I remove the lights. My family members frown when I jokingly refer to this as the tree’s “body bag,” but it only wears it briefly until it is dragged through the house and then it goes naked to the municipal compost operation.

Sue me. I’ll never get an artificial tree. 

For one thing I find no charm in knowing that the first fakes were made by manufacturers of toilet bowl brushes. These days, more than 85 percent of synthetic trees are imported from China – you know, from halfway around the world, adding to our trade imbalance and doing nothing much for the U.S. economy if you care about such things.

Manufacturing standards in China are not to U.S. levels and most of these trees are made of petroleum-based plastics that include hazardous lead. This is an issue as well with the other great fake vs. real debate – real grass or artificial turf for sports fields. In both cases I think it wise to consider the end-users, i.e., the children whom we want to spare exposure to unnecessary toxins.

Older trees break down and can shed lead dust, something health agencies have worked hard to eliminate from the paints we use in and on our homes. Plus, while our real trees live on as compost, returning a benefit to the soil whence they came, fake trees live forever in our landfills where they go in seven years on average after they are purchased – or in one or two if their lights fail.

There isn’t really a robust conflict on relative cost. A $300 six-foot artificial tree costs about the same as real six-foot trees purchased annually at $45 a pop. Fake trees can look pretty convincing, many swear, but they have an unnatural perfection that may rankle those of us who love living plants, even when they are imperfectly shaped. (Hint: This is why God made pruners.)

I may not convince everyone --or anyone -- that a real tree is the only way to go. Heck, I couldn't even convince my own mother, who has a near-allergic reaction to the concept of stray needles on the floor. I just conceded that she could do whatever she wants.

So can you, and my best wishes for a wonderful Christmas will never be less than warmly heartfelt. Make it merry and bright!