Spruce or pine? Real or fake? The tyranny of choice and the centuries-old Christmas tree

More Americans are choosing artificial trees, some of them more inventive than others, such as this tree made of wood slats from downed dune fences found on a beach after a hurricane.

Nothing is more potentially contentious in our family at Christmas than the 7-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide living vegetation we bring into the house every December.

There is the where to put it in our already cluttered living room. There is height and width to debate. There is, at very genesis, variety: The Yankees in the family want blue spruce. I want white pine like the kind we cut down in the S.C. woods I grew up next to.

As for decorating, I am all about the free-flow, everybody hovered around the tree like Charlie Brown’s friends until there are more ornaments than pine needles and as many strands of lights as branches can hold.

My electric-bill-conscious, some would say cheap, husband, on the other hand, always insisted on no more than three strands of lights, and the sloth method of decorating, aka taking turns, hanging ornaments one at a time, and telling (long) stories about each ornament. This always took the whole of an evening and inevitably ended with somebody stomping out of the room as the kidlet-turned-teen-ager crowd refused to hear another story about the ornament shaped like a ship’s wheel and how Mom and Dad spent their first Christmas in Charleston.

One thing was never up for debate, however: Converting to artificial.

This is despite the fact that a growing number of Americans are choosing fake trees, ranging in price from Walmart’s $20 unlit “Wesley pine” to a “Balsam Fir Premium Prelit” version Amazon will ship for $599.

In 2004, 9 million, or fewer than a fourth of all Christmas trees sold, were artificial, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Thirteen years later, in 2017, artificial trees constituted almost half of annual sales, or 21 million of the 48-million-trees market. And for good reasons, including avoiding potentially serious allergies to real Christmas trees, said many of the respondents to a recent social-media query. Artificial trees apparently cause fewer fires. They cost less over time and are generally less messy, less trouble and less of a cat magnet. Other reasons cited include: “Because I’m lazy”; “Because I lost that argument”; and “Because we don’t like the senseless slaughter of perfectly good trees.”

OK, but don’t you miss tromping through the Christmas-tree farm with the family, and chopping down the tree together, I asked my artificial-convert friends?

“We never did that,” Elaine said. “We would go to a parking lot and choose one in the cold — don’t miss that at all.”

What about the scent that only real greenery can bring?

“We light a scented candle,” says Kelley.

Well then, what about “carbon footprint,” aka emissions and greenhouse gases produced when making, using or disposing of a product that is manufactured in a factory?

Truth be told, I checked this out on the website “Sustainability for All,” and while some will argue this, I found that people who manage to keep their fake tree for 12 years are just as carbon-footprint conscious as the real-tree lover who burns her tree into the atmosphere or leaves it to compost in a waste dump.

It apparently comes down to personal preference and maybe which advertising maneuver gets to you — whether the real-tree people’s $1 million “Keep it Real” video campaign launched this year or the fake-tree people’s public proclamations about reusability, safety and how artificial trees easily snap together now,

All I know in our house is what we’ve always done, and that is argue over which tree to buy at the farm, then bring it home and put it in the stand, crooked, until it eventually falls over and we have to take it out and start over.

The debate between fake and real doesn’t make a hill of wreaths to people like me and my family, or to those whose Christmas “tree” is an existing house plant wrapped for the season in twinkle lights.

Nor will my friend Gail care about this ever again, as this year she decided to position gradually smaller shelves into a 5-foot-tall, wooden A-frame Christmas shape, which she will leave up all year and decorate seasonally.

And then there’s my friend Beverly who lives on the South Carolina coast.

She and her husband went to the beach after “one of the hurricanes,” where they found a bunch of wood slats from downed dune fences. They took the slats home, thread them onto a metal rod in the shape of a Christmas tree and strung them with white lights.

“It’s simple, hand-crafted and rustic,” Beverly said.

And look, Santa, no carbon footprint.

In fact, the opposite.

“We cleaned up the beach after a hurricane, and got a permanent Christmas tree at the same time,” Beverly said.

Next stop on the Polar Bear Express: Christmas trees recycled out of Christmas trees.

Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988.