Real vs. artificial Christmas trees: Which should you get?

  • Cox Media Group National Content Desk
3:35 p.m Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017 Homepage

When it comes to holiday decorating, one big question that arises each year is whether real or artificial Christmas trees are the better choice.

There are pros and cons to both kinds of Christmas trees, and which is best for you is a personal decision. Here are some factors to consider when deciding between a real or artificial Christmas tree.

For better health, real tree: Birgitta Gatersleben, an environmental psychologist at the University of Surrey, told The Telegraph that households benefit from exposure to natural environments and there was “plenty of evidence” that real Christmas trees helped people recover more quickly from stress and mental fatigue.

“Evergreen plants seem alive when everything else appears dead," she noted. "It is the depth of color of real trees and the smell that really appeals to people, as well as the notion that something alive is coming indoors.”

For minimal mess, artificial tree: “No matter what you do, there’s going to be needles falling off a real tree,” Chal Landgren, a professor in the department of horticulture at Oregon State University, told Consumer Reports. Overwatering can also damage floors or carpets, or at least require frequent mopping or steam cleaning.

Of course, artificial trees also eventually require cleaning, according to SFGate, including some sponging down and vigorous shaking at the beginning of the season. The only time it might be more difficult to clean up after an artificial tree than a natural version: when the fake tree comes pre-wired with lights that are almost impossible to clean around, since you shouldn't get them wet.

For decreased risk of home fire, artificial tree: The National Fire Protection Association determined that the risk of a fire is three times greater with natural trees than artificial ones, reported CR, adding that total number of Christmas-tree-related fires is small and burning candles are the far more common culprit.

If you want to buy American, real tree: Using 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture stats, CR reported that U.S. farmers harvested 17.3 million Christmas trees for $305 million in sales, while U.S. Census Bureau stats indicated 97 percent of artificial trees that same year were imported from China.

For improved outdoor air quality, real tree: All trees, even those planted solely to cut for Christmas a few years later, are beneficial to the environment, according to Clean Air Gardening. "Trees are like the lungs of the planet," it said. "They breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. Additionally, they provide habitat for birds and other wildlife."

Trees also help to reduce ozone levels in urban areas, cut runoff and erosion by storing water and breaking the force of rain as it falls, and absorb sound and reduce noise pollution.

For decorations lasting more than a few weeks, artificial tree: According to Today's Home Owner, a cut tree will last just a month before you need to take it down. Even a month may be a stretch--that figure only applies to a freshly cut tree, kept well supplied with water. "If you’re buying a pre-cut tree, be sure to ask when it was harvested," noted THO. All natural Christmas trees start losing needles as they dry, though fir, spruce, and cypress generally typically keep their needles longer than pines.

For those who aren't so great with upkeep, artificial tree: A real tree can drink a gallon or more of water per day to start, according to THO, so to maintain one you'll need to be prepared to check the reservoir several times over the first few days and at least once a day after that, never letting the reservoir dry out.

If you value reusing, recycling or repurposing, real tree: If you're responsible and maybe a little creative, a live tree will never need to take up space in a landfill, according to Lowe's, which recommended looking for local recycling centers that will chip and shred trees for use as mulch or part of erosion barriers for lake and river shoreline management.

Note, though, if you're not going to recycle your tree, the fact that it could be recycled doesn't count as a plus. Instead, it will just go to the landfill once a year, versus the artificial tree, which should last many years before you have to toss and replace it.

Lowe's also suggested repurposing live trees after you take them down, using thin slices of the trunk as canvases for next year's ornaments or coasters, for example, or sinking the whole tree into a backyard pond as a refuge and feeding area for fish. You can also stand the tree or a few of its larger branches in the yard as an organic feeder and sanctuary for birds.

For allergy relief, it's a draw. If you have sneezing fits around Christmas trees, the cause is less likely to be the tree and more likely to be mold spores on the tree, according to CR. A fake Christmas tree that's been stored in the attic or basement can collect dust or mold, too.

After reviewing all the evidence, if you're still undecided or drawn to the same decision you've made in years past, don't fret, advised CR. "It really comes down to your holiday traditions and what works best for your family," it said. "And no one said you couldn’t purchase more than one!”

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