Objects of Concern: Christmas Trees
By James Von Tersch
The Christmas Tree is an integral part of western cultural tradition during the winter holidays and is today celebrated all over the world. Nowhere is the symbol more popular than in the United States, where up to 30 million Christmas trees are cut annually (AGMRC). Every year, usually the day after Thanksgiving, three-quarters of American families display an evergreen tree in their home, which they usually keep up until the end of December. For most Americans today, that involves buying a real-live Christmas tree, grown for about five years, and then, once used, thrown away. Another popular option is to buy an artificial tree, usually made out of plastic, that is used maybe five to ten years before being tossed in a landfill. Most Americans who celebrate Christmas are now switching to an artificial tree, but many argue over whether it is more beneficial than buying a real tree. Whether you buy a real tree or a fake one, producing and disposing of both have effects on our environment and, consequently, our health. How did the Christmas Tree become so integral to American culture? Why is it that during the month of December, more than three-quarters of Americans today put a decorated evergreen tree in their home?
Short History of the Christmas Tree
The tradition of decorating the home during the winter with branches of evergreen trees goes back long before Christmas, or even Christianity had come into existence. Many ancient cultures in Europe and the Northern Hemisphere worshiped a Sun God and believed that during the winter their Sun God had grown weak. In ancient Roman, Egyptian, and Celtic cultures, there was a festival that marked the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. This was celebrated because people knew that after the solstice, days would begin to get longer and bring more sunlight. People believed evergreen plants were special to the Sun God, so they were displayed in homes to ward off evil spirits. There were other reasons the end of December was a good time for celebration, as most beer and wine produced during the year would be finished fermenting, and most cattle would be slaughtered, so they would not have to be fed during the rest of the winter.
When Europe became Christianized, there was a push by the Roman Church to adopt existing pagan festivals and convert them into Christian holidays. At the time, Easter was the only Christian holiday, and Jesus’ birth date was not celebrated because it had never been stated in the bible. By choosing to place Jesus’ birth at the same time as the winter solstice, the Church increased the chances that Christmas would become popularly accepted (Sullivan). However, they did not decide how Christmas should be celebrated. So in many cultures, the same traditions that had been practiced during the original pagan winter solstice festivals were carried on into Christmas. This mainly involved the practice of drinking and celebrating. In medieval times Christmas resembled more of today's Mardi Gras festival, but many unique traditions also persisted. In German countries, the practice of bringing an evergreen tree into the home carried on for centuries. By the 17th century, these trees were decorated with apples, sweets, and candles. Eventually, these trees began to resemble the Christmas tree we know today (Onion).
While the popularity of the Christmas tree spread throughout Europe, the Christmas tree, and even Christmas in general, would take some time to gain popularity in the United States. Early Puritan settlers on the East Coast associated Christmas with the decline of moral and religious values. Back in England, the Puritans had successfully banned Christmas from 1647 to 1660. In the Massachusetts Colony, Christmas was effectively outlawed from 1659 to 1681 and anyone caught celebrating was fined five shillings. Christmas trees and other decorations were especially detested by the Puritans, who believed Christmas was sacred, and should not be associated with pagan traditions.
This began to change in the 19th century when waves of German and Irish immigrants came to the US, among whom Christmas was very popular. In 1851, the first Christmas trees began to be sold commercially. These trees were harvested at random from evergreen forests. While Germans traditionally had only small Christmas trees, usually only one to two feet tall, Americans preferred large trees that reached the ceiling. In 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday. As Christmas increased in popularity in the US, coupled with already existing timber harvesting practices, overharvesting of evergreen trees became an issue. Conservationists began to become alarmed over the wasteful practice of households cutting down a tree for Christmas every year. President Theodore Roosevelt even sought to rid the US of the tradition altogether and banned Christmas trees from the White House in 1901. That same year, the first Christmas tree farm was started in New Jersey, when 25,000 Norway Spruces were planted (NCTA). Today, having a Christmas tree in the home during the month of December is a widely popular tradition in the US, and is a popular symbol for Christmas. There are approximately 20-30 million real trees harvested annually, and almost all are grown on tree farms. In 2014, the amount of land in the US that produced Christmas trees reached 178,000 acres. This number has been declining as people have begun to use artificial trees as an alternative, but there is much debate over which is more harmful to the environment to produce.
The first artificial Christmas trees originated in Germany in the 19th century and were originally made of dyed goose feathers, tied to wire branches that were attached to a central wooden rod. This was in response to the overharvesting of the country's evergreen forests. Artificial Christmas trees were developed in the US at the beginning of the 20th century for the same reason. This began with an artificial tree manufactured by the Addis Houseware Company who made their trees from toilet brush bristles that could hold ornaments. These wouldn’t become popular in the US however until the 1950s and 1960s when these trees began to be made from Aluminum. Today, most artificial trees are made from PVC plastic and eighty percent are manufactured in China. Artificial trees have increased in popularity in the United States, while the popularity of buying a real tree has steadily declined. The US Census of Agriculture found that live Christmas tree production fell from 20.8 million trees in 2002 to 15.1 million trees in 2017. Meanwhile, Artificial tree sales from China to the US have steadily increased (Zraick).
Consequences to the Environment and Our Health
To understand what the lasting effect of having a Christmas tree has on our environment, we need to look at the production of both real trees produced from a tree farm, and artificial trees produced in factories from PVC plastic. There is much debate over which has less of an impact on the environment. Studies found that for both artificial and real trees, much of their environmental impact comes from the choices of the consumer. For artificial trees, this comes down to how many years the tree was used before it was disposed of. A customer might reuse an artificial tree for five to ten years, but rarely are they reused after that, eventually ending up in landfills as they cannot be recycled. For the purchaser of a live tree, the impact greatly depends on how that customer chooses to dispose of the tree. Many live trees are tossed in landfills after one year of use, although some take their trees to be recycled into mulch.
Besides how they are disposed of, for real trees, most of the environmental impact comes from their production. First of all, when producing a live Christmas tree it can take up to two years for a seed to produce a sapling. Afterward, the sapling is moved from a nursery bed to a transport bed covered in foil, where it can take two to four years to grow to a small tree. Then, after the transplants are placed in the field, they can take up to five to eleven years before they are harvested. After a tree is harvested, it usually is replaced by the next rotation of trees. Meanwhile, the trees have to be watered, fertilized, trimmed and protected from disease and insects with chemicals. While the trees are being used in the home, usually around eighteen days, they consume roughly sixty-two liters of water each (McAllister).
While real Christmas trees take years to grow, artificial trees take one day to manufacture. This mostly involves the use of PVC constructed together with pieces of steel. The production of PVC emits several carcinogens, a few being dioxins, ethylene dichloride, and vinyl chloride. Lead is also used to make the needles and can have several negative consequences to human health if exposed. The PVC film used to make the tree is produced from PVC resin and then cut and tied to steel wire to form branches. The tree pole, hinges, and metal fastener are made from rolled steel sheets that are powder coated with epoxy resin, while the tree stand and top are made from PVC moldings (Andrei). After being manufactured and assembled in China, the artificial tree is shipped to a harbor and then transported to the US in a container ship before reaching the retailer. These trees are non-recyclable since the plastic, steel, and copper would need to be broken down before being recycled. As a result, after about five to ten years, these trees end up in landfills (Blakemore).
Ethical Question: Should we buy a Christmas tree, real or fake?
For most, Christmas would not be the same without a Christmas tree and all that goes with it. So many other traditions that make up Americans' Christmas celebrations are centered around having a Christmas tree in the home. However, real or fake, both have considerable negative effects on our environment and our own health. Other than their aesthetic and cultural value, from an outside perspective Christmas trees could be seen as an incredible waste of resources. So it begs the question, should we continue to produce Christmas trees?
One easy answer I believe is the use of living Christmas trees that are instead planted, and continually used every year until they grow too large and must be planted outside. If this doesn’t appeal to you, there are still ways you can minimize your environmental effects from using a traditional real tree.
It seems that if you are going to buy a Christmas tree for the holidays, the least environmentally impactful option would be to buy a real tree. This is considering that artificial trees cannot be recycled and only last five to ten years. It also greatly depends on personal choices, like how far your tree was transported from farm to home, and how you choose to dispose of that tree after use. Buying a tree locally, and then recycling that tree into mulch, is the best option if you choose to buy a real harvested tree. The least environmentally impactful option,however, would be to buy a live potted tree, and reuse that tree annually until it is planted outside. This may not be an option for everyone, but if it is, it should at least be considered before buying a dead or artificial tree.
Andrei, Mihai. “Real Vs Artificial Christmas Tree: What the Science Says.” ZME Science, 1 Feb. 2019, www.zmescience.com/other/feature-post/real-vs-artificial-christmas-tree-science-says/.
Blakemore, Erin. “Your Christmas Tree Is Lit, but How Hard Does It Hit the Environment?” Popular Science, 23 Dec. 2019, www.popsci.com/story/environment/christmas-tree-environmental-impact/.
“Christmas Trees.” Christmas Trees | Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/forestry/christmas-trees.
“History of Christmas Trees.” National Christmas Tree Association, 29 July 2019, realchristmastrees.org/education/history-of-christmas-trees/.
McAllister, Brad. Life Cycle Assessment: Comparative LCA of the Environmental Impacts of Real Christmas and Artificial Christmas Trees, WAP Sustainability Consulting, Mar. 2018, 8nht63gnxqz2c2hp22a6qjv6-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/ACTA_2018_LCA_Study.pdf.
Onion, Amanda. “History of Christmas Trees.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees.
Sullivan, Missy. “History of Christmas.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas.
Zraick, Karen. “Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees: Which Is the Greener Choice?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Nov. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/11/26/business/energy-environment/fake-christmas-tree-vs-real-tree.html.