Welcome to House Rules, Curbed’s new advice column; first up, our columnist answers your hosting and holiday questions. Other house-related dilemmas? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Real tree or fake tree?
Pining for Answers
As I discovered when I surveyed my friends and family for their thoughts on this issue, what kind of Christmas tree to get is a polarizing question that touches on people’s deepest feelings about tradition, aesthetics, health, safety, class, consumerism, and the future of the planet.
“There is no way in hell a plastic tree (made from coal or crude oil) produced in a factory in China, and then shipped from China, and then put on, like, five trucks, and then driven home by you, and then eventually thrown in a landfill, is more eco-friendly than cutting a tree from a local tree farm that is always planting more trees (and supporting that local business) and then turning that tree into mulch when you’re done,” observed my environmentally conscious sister, who lives in Portland, Oregon, near many tree farms, and who sent me a link to a New York Times article on why real trees are the greener (pun intended) choice.
A friend in Southern California weighed in with a strong Marxist critique, arguing that “Anybody who looks down on ‘fake’ trees ain’t a friend of the proletariat.” They pointed out that most people don’t live in “some coniferous temperate zone, able to source some live-ass Douglas fir into their house for decorative purposes, much less have the room to squeeze a whole tree into their living space.”
Real trees are classist. Fake trees are phony. Real trees can kill you. Fake trees can kill the planet. The stakes are high, and the rhetoric is even higher!
It’s no wonder that this evergreen conundrum has pushed some relationships to the brink. One friend told me that when his partner saw his fake tree, he “gave me a despairing look, like, ‘Wait, who are you? I’m not sure about this relationship.’” Eventually that partner came around, but some people aren’t quite as willing to capitulate. A pro-real friend of mine has a pro-fake spouse, and they both refuse to budge. They are currently alternating years, but my friend hasn’t given up. She is hoping their kids will grow up to be pro-real so her spouse will ultimately be outvoted.
In this divided climate, I’m either the best or worst person to answer your question, because I’ve found a way to play both sides. For almost a decade, I’ve had a minimalist stainless steel $10 tabletop tree from Ikea that I decorate with ornaments and lights. For most of December, I am #TeamFakeTree.
But I spend Christmas Eve and Day with my family of origin, who live in the Evergreen State. They would sooner cancel Christmas and join forces with the Grinch than allow the abomination of a fake tree into the home, so every year I get to bask in the aura of a real ceiling-grazing fir and breathe in the aroma of its needles and sap. Growing up, my siblings and I used to sleep in the living room by the tree on Christmas Eve, and even in my 40s I still do. Although I have never gotten my own real tree, there’s something about the combination of the scent and the glow that is magic to me like nothing else.
I recommend my own approach as one way to have the best of both worlds, but I realize that this particular solution is not available to everyone. (I also realize that many people don’t have a choice at all: If you have asthma or allergies or live in a condo that forbids real trees, the decision is already made for you.)
Still, as someone who cares about convenience, tradition, the environment, the proletariat, and that impossible-to-fake, real-Christmas-tree smell, I can offer you a few pieces of advice for making the best of your preference, whatever it is:
For real-tree people
If you want a real tree but have space or budget constraints, and/or you have extremely finely tuned ethical sensitivities and don’t want to be responsible for a tree’s unnecessary death, consider getting a rosemary tree to add to an herb garden, or a small live evergreen tree in a pot that can eventually be planted outside. (If you don’t have outdoor space, you can give it to someone who does.)
If you want a full-sized tree but you’re single and feel daunted by the thought of dragging it home by yourself like a tragic rom-com heroine in a post-breakup montage of loneliness, invite some friends to come with you and help out!
If you opt for a cut tree, remember to water it, turn its lights off when you go to bed, keep it away from live flame, and, when you’re ready to say goodbye, look into local tree-disposal options that will allow it to end up as mulch or compost instead of in a landfill.
For fake-tree people
If you prefer the ease of a fake tree but miss the smell of a real one, and your pine-scented candles aren’t quite cutting it, supplement it with some real greenery. L.L. Bean has some lovely wreath and centerpiece options, or you can buy or scrounge some boughs locally. This year I hung a fresh wreath on the inside of my front door, so my apartment smells like Christmas.
If you’re concerned about the environmental impact of a new fake tree, consider getting a vintage one. They really knew how to make trees back in the 20th century! As one of my friends told me, and there are pictures to prove it: “I have a gold and silver tinsel tree and it’s AMAZEBALLS.” My great-grandma loved pink, and I still fondly remember the unapologetically artificial dazzle of her bright pink aluminum midcentury tree.
For non-plastic, highly space-efficient, miniature options, you can find good new and used ceramic trees that run on batteries or plug in and light up like a lamp. Or, if you feel like playing with fire, you can try a tiny tree-shaped candle holder and see if it satisfies. A few years ago I gave my friend a little Polish pottery Christmas tree luminary that casts a lovely light around the room and radiates maximum festivity while taking up almost no space.
Perhaps my best or worst fake-tree tip comes from a Floridian friend, who says, “Growing up, we had a fake one that stayed put-together and decorated on wheels in the garage so we could just roll it into the living room.” If you have lots of storage space and aren’t sentimental about trimming the tree with friends and family while drinking eggnog and listening to Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, this might be an option for you!
For both real- and fake-tree people
Sometimes a tree doesn’t have to be a tree. When my friend was dreading decorating a Christmas tree in the wake of her mother’s death, we hung some garlands and ornaments from the windows instead. It was festive without feeling emotionally overwhelming.
Don’t sleep on the magic of public trees. Whether or not you have a tree at home, you can often still go to a local tree-lighting ceremony with the people from your neighborhood, or walk or ice-skate in the shadow of a tree that’s bigger and grander than your entire house. Beautiful trees are everywhere in December. Recently I was at a bar with a small snowy courtyard illuminated by a tree decorated in plain white lights, glowing in the winter mist. It looked like it had wandered in from an enchanted forest. Even if you can’t have or don’t want a tree of your own, you don’t need to feel deprived.
Finally, a quirky Christmas tradition from my youth: If your pets are eating ornaments from the bottom branches or batting them off the tree, bake or buy pet treats in the shape of gingerbread people and hang them like ornaments from the lower boughs. Replace them as often as necessary.
Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating! I’ll be back in January with some advice for the new year.
Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions and the co-editor of the online magazine Killing the Buddha. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York magazine/the Cut, the Paris Review Daily, the Seattle Star, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, and lives in Elmhurst, Queens.