The Christmas Tree Question: Real or Artificial?

By , December 3, 2009

Our Christmas decorating is moving slowly ahead. The biggest issue for us is what to do about a Christmas tree.

As I’m fond of saying, some people arrange their homes by Feng Shui; we arrange ours by Feng Shoehorn. We try to arrange our tiny cabin so that we can actually move around comfortably. This challenge climaxes at the Christmas season. The carefully adjusted balance between furniture, people and supplies becomes totally unstable when we try to put a Christmas tree in with it all!

When my family lived in Sitka, my dad consulted with local foresters, then told us that he intended to buy an artificial Christmas tree. He had been told that the trees we normally cut for Christmas, mostly from muskeg flats, grew at an incredibly slow rate. Any tree cut would take many years to regrow. Dad decided that it would be better to buy artificial, and stop cutting trees.

My brother and I thought it was the end of the world, but soon discovered that an artificial tree meant that the Christmas tree can be set up far earlier in the season, and be left up longer. Also, we no longer had to keep the tree watered or deal with falling needles. We missed the fresh-cut tree, but a few evergreen bows for the Advent wreath and elsewhere scented the room nicely.

When Michelle and I married, we took what we could find. We often had artificial trees, mostly used ones given to us or purchased from thrift stores. We moved around a lot and always on a budget, so many times we had to give up our artificial trees and hope that another would replace it in the new home the next year. Some places we lived allowed live Christmas trees—our favorite option was cutting ourselves from local tree farms.

At the same time, our marriage had brought together two rather impressive collections of ornaments, which continued to grow during our marriage. We found we needed larger trees to hold it all.

After settling in Juneau, we eventually bought a 7 1/2 foot pre-lit tree. This was perfect for many years, and when we moved to the homestead, we hauled it out here with us.

"Livin' around the Christmas Tree . . ." The big artificial tree, 2006.

"Livin' around the Christmas Tree . . ." The big artificial tree, 2006.

That first Christmas taught us that a tree that big simply wouldn’t do. We needed something smaller, and we needed LED lights to draw less power. We gave the tree away and cut smaller trees from our property the next two Christmases. In the meantime, we watched for opportunities to get a smaller artificial tree second or third-hand. Celebrating Christmas for a full six weeks is hard on a live tree, and we’re reluctant to cut live trees for any reason. We think of the live trees as a stop-gap measure until something better can be found.

This is complicated by a new study that tells us that cutting a live tree is slightly better for the environment than buying artificial, since the plastics manufacturing to create artificial trees is so toxic. The report didn’t mention cutting from tree farms, by the way, which is surely much more ecologically sound. We’d still like an artificial tree, and it seems that if we continue to find one secondhand, that’d be better—the damage has already been done, we won’t be buying new, thus alerting market forces of the need to create more, and we’d stop cutting live trees each year.

All of this will be deferred yet again this year by circumstances. My sister and a friend are coming to spend Christmas with us! This means that we’ll need more room than ever, and a whole tree is probably not going to work.

Luckily, we have learned from our first Christmas on the homestead. We still lived in Juneau, but spent the school break at the homestead. We put our big tree up for the season in Juneau, and chose a few extra-precious ornaments to bring with us. We cut a spray of bows, hung them in one of the windows, and decorated them like a tree. It worked very well, so we’ll do the same this year for a less space-consuming Christmas tree. The trick will be timing, as the bows will shed needles far faster than a tree. On the other hand, we have enough trimming to do around the property that, if we need to, we could change out the bows several times during the season. That means re-decorating it each time, though, so, we’ll see . . . .

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