A real or artificial Christmas tree – which is better?

The evergreen Christmas tree has been an essential part of the holiday season in Christian countries for centuries. Its fragrance conveys a sense of liveliness during the coldest months of the year, while its branches symbolize eternal life. There are even non-Christian cultures that have adopted the wonderful custom of decorating an evergreen tree for Christmas. Thanks to the influence of tradition, innovation and changes in consumer behaviour, Christmas tree decorations have evolved over time, as has the choice of a real or artificial Christmas tree. But which is better for your health, the environment and your wallet? The most important aspects as well as a list of potential advantages and disadvantages of both are summarized below.

Christmas and the Christmas tree in Christianity

In the course of Christianity’s establishment as a major religion, the old custom of using an evergreen tree’s branch as decoration during Christmas was adopted by the leaders of the church, and in 1419 the first public Christmas tree saw the light of the Christmas world for the first time. The bakers of Freiburg wanted to give the poor people of their city a Christmas treat. In Stockstadt am Main, a magnificent Christmas tree was placed in the public square according to record. Soon the whole Christian world was craving a Christmas tree to brighten up their homes during the festive season. Until the 18th century, however, the purchase and decoration of Christmas trees was only affordable for well-to-do families. Food, straw or biscuits served as decorations, while the more common spruce was used as the Christmas tree. Glass ornaments for the tree were invented later in the city of Lauscha in Thuringia, where they were first sold door to door in baskets. From those humble beginnings, glass decorations went on to conquer the world.

The Christmas tree tradition spread gradually thanks to Christian emigrants, travellers or marriages abroad. Certain aspects of the practice differed depending on regional customs. Nevertheless, to this day a brightly lit, evergreen is an essential part of any Christian’s living room during the holiday season. These days the trees are decorated with electrical lights instead of candles to reduce the risk of fire. Traditionally, the Christmas tree is the centre of the family gathering in any Christian home, and children and parents love to decorate it together. Friends and relatives gather together to bask in its warm and inviting glow.

Christmas tree – its meaning beyond religion

Green branches have decorated parlours since long before the first Christmas tree was put up. In the darkness of winter, people longed for any signs of the coming of spring. In some regions of the world the Christian Christmas is not part of the local culture; however, there are usually still quite a few Christmas trees set up for the benefit of tourists. Often, people living away from home will set up Christmas trees in their communities as it creates an atmosphere of warmth, life and perseverance, independent of its Christian roots. For many people, decorating the tree is a simple pleasure in itself. They love the brilliant shine of the balls, the endless number of jewellery design possibilities and the opportunity for some time to relax. Of course, many fans of Christmas are simply fascinated by the lights.

Many different philosophies on how to decorate a Christmas tree “correctly” have been developed, depending on family or region. Red or colourful, white or all in gold – thanks to a huge number of decorations available, anyone can bring their creative Christmas designs to life. The entire house is often decorated according to the colour and design specifications of the Christmas tree. Sometimes planning begins weeks ahead. For many, decorating the tree is just a pleasant way to pass the time while the winter storms rage outside.

Ecological and economic aspects of both types

Since the introduction of artificial Christmas trees, environmentalists and climate experts have fought over their impact on the environment. That said, it is impossible to imagine a living room at Christmas without one. There are several things to consider when deciding between a real or artificial tree:

Real Christmas trees 

A real Christmas tree is usually allowed to grow 8 to 12 years before it is cut down and put up for sale. The tree is ecologically valuable during this period thanks to the CO2 balancing it provides. The young tree also provides a habitat for numerous animals. However, due to the heavy demand for trees, many Christmas tree nurseries use monocultures. Pests can make short work of these, meaning pesticides must be used to prevent the trees from being destroyed. Due to growing criticism from environmental associations and consumers, many manufacturers are now rebuilding organic forests. In these forests, no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used; the trees are cultivated naturally. A Naturland, FSC or Bioland seal certify that the marked trees come from sustainable forests that do not burden the ecosystem. Only a limited number of Christmas trees are allowed to be grown in Germany’s tree nurseries. There is also a greater variety of evergreen tree species in foreign countries such as Scandinavia. As a result, the demand necessitates the import of large quantities of trees. According to statistics, every fourth Christmas tree is imported from Scandinavia. The long transport times mean higher fuel consumption, which harms the environment.

The next aspect of the Christmas tree’s ecology to be considered is the lifespan. After eight years at the earliest and 12 years at the latest, the tree will have reached the right size. It is then harvested and placed on the market. In most homes, it is up from Advent until at latest the first days of January. Then its life is over, and the still young tree is disposed of. Small trees are occasional exceptions as they are sometimes re-potted, and the demand for this environmentally friendly and truly evergreen solution is growing, thankfully; however, it’s still not common-place. After all, where does one put the plant after Christmas? In some cases, suppliers take back the still-living Christmas trees and keep them alive and well them until the next season. Here, too, there is unfortunately still a lot of work to be done to make more people aware of this important environmental issue.

Artificial Christmas trees

Only synthetic raw materials are used in the production of artificial Christmas trees. The plastic used for the trees has a composition that is not suitable for recycling. An artificial Christmas tree made in Asia is often heavily contaminated with harmful substances. This can make it a problem for people suffering from allergies when they set it up. In addition, the fact that the majority of such trees are produced in Asian production facilities must be considered. The trees must be transported very long distances to get from the factories in Asia to the sale floors in Germany and Europe. This comes with a considerable emissions cost to the environment.

Since the invention of artificial Christmas trees, pollution has been used as an argument against their continued spread. On the other hand, the lifespan of these trees should also be taken into account. People often use the same artificial Christmas tree every year for years on end. Depending on its quality, the same tree may have been passed down from grandparents to great-grandchildren. The artificial alternatives can be decorated in as many ways as their real counterparts. They shine wonderfully in the glow of the Christmas tree lights, and also benefit from being much less of a fire hazard. That said, that distinctive evergreen aroma can only be reproduced via artificial means. On the other hand, the cost is significantly lower than for a real Christmas tree because it can be reused.

Health concerns when choosing a real or artificial Christmas tree

Pollutants are said to be present in many artificial Christmas trees. However, there has been a positive change in this regard in the last few years. More and more European manufacturers, who work according to strict environmental specifications, are replacing the Asian cheap products. The result is artificial Christmas trees without the pollution. Although these cost a little more upfront depending on size and type, they are still comparatively inexpensive in light of the many years of use a family can get out of one. The smell of real Christmas trees can be unpleasant for some people rather than enjoyable. This is because the scent is produced by the tree’s resin, making it both allergy-friendly and unavoidable.

There’s one concern that has existed since the first Christmas trees, whether real or artificial, were put up: it’s a fire hazard. In the beginning, wax candles were used to decorate the real trees. Too often this resulted in the apartment, house and whole quarters going up in flames. In spite of the danger, some families have kept the tradition of using a wax candle. Artificial alternatives tend to be less fire-prone, however, as plastic and other non-flammable materials are used in modern trees. Caution is nevertheless advised no matter which type of tree you decide on, especially given modern lighting technology. There are countless electrical lighting options that can replace candles. Their light makes decorations and trees shine just as beautifully as the classic wax candle. There’s no warming effect with LEDs, however.

Advantages and disadvantages of real Christmas trees in a nutshell

Anyone looking to buy a Christmas tree for next Christmas should take more than just the few points mentioned above into consideration. After all, Christmas is also about making the season and time together with friends and family as festive as possible. Summed up briefly, here are the most important advantages and disadvantages of real Christmas trees:

Advantages of real Christmas trees

  • Thanks to its natural appearance, the evergreen brings a bit of nature into the living room in the middle of winter.
  • The scent of resin and needles produced by real Christmas trees really complements the aroma of cinnamon and gingerbread and is sure to bring joy to all.
  • Every year, the selection and purchase of the new Christmas tree is an important part of the family tradition that is hotly anticipated for weeks ahead of time.
  • The large number of evergreen tree species offers plenty of variety thanks to the selection switching itself up every year

Disadvantages of real fir trees

  • Every year new costs are incurred for the purchase of the trees, as well as for the stand with irrigation facilities. Depending on the area, the disposal of the tree may also cost a fee.
  • The selection of the tree is time consuming and setting it up it at home often takes a good while as well. During the weeks before Christmas, the plant must be watered regularly to prevent the needles from drying out prematurely. It also takes time to take the whole thing down after Christmas every year.
  • The resin of evergreens are terpenes that are released into the air. Allergy sufferers may react badly to this.

Advantages and disadvantages of artificial Christmas trees in a nutshell

Just because there are a few disadvantages to real Christmas trees doesn’t mean the family should automatically go for the artificial variants. There are a few things to consider here as well before committing to a purchase:

Advantages of artificial Christmas trees

  • Despite the artificial raw materials used, an artificial Christmas tree is ecological because it is reused for many years, sometimes even decades.
  • An artificial Christmas tree does not have to be set up, watered or disposed of. This saves time and maintenance.
  • If you don’t find complete trees personal enough, you can now buy models with holes to put twigs in yourself. This type of tree can become a unique and unmistakable work of art made by the whole family, according to their own personal tastes.
  • At a one-time purchase cost, an artificial Christmas tree is on average considerably less expensive than its real counterparts.
  • Every year the artificial tree can be decorated as differently as if it were a real specimen. Despite being made of artificial materials, it is still a living contribution to the family celebration.
  • Disadvantages of artificial Christmas trees
  • Artificial trees can contain harmful substances; therefore, you should pay attention to eco-labels when making a purchase.
  • Artificial Christmas trees are not disposed of between Christmases, but rather put away in storage for the following year. This requires space that might not be available everywhere, especially in city apartments.
  • Many people complain about the lack of a pine scent. However, this can be compensated for at least partially by putting real branches around an Advent wreath.

Conclusion:

The Christmas tree is a beloved tradition enjoyed by both Christian and non-Christian families alike. Artificial trees are becoming increasingly popular on the market. But before buying, the pros and cons of both real and artificial Christmas trees should be weighed. After all, they both have their advantages and disadvantages in terms of cost, environmental impact and overall Christmas charm.