Over the past 13 years, a growing number of Americans have gradually been trading in the annual tradition of hauling home a fragrant fir or pine for an artificial variety.
The National Christmas Tree Association reports that in 1990 the split between real and artificial was just about even. But since then, the gap has widened with just 30 percent of trees displayed in 2002 being real. Last year also saw fewer households displaying any tree, real or artificial -- nearly one-third did not.
"The artificial tree will continue to be sold in large numbers in a slowly expanding Christmas tree market," say educators on the Michigan State University Department of Forestry website. "Characterized by convenience, perceived value and cleanliness, these products will receive increased support from those concerned with fire safety and alleged lower environmental impacts."
However, fire safety is an important issue with artificial trees, too. If you use an artificial tree, safety experts say to choose one that is tested and labeled as fire resistant. Artificial trees with built-in electrical systems should have the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) label.
For many, selecting your own pine or fir from a cut-it-yourself farm -- or even a fresh one from a local lot -- is one of the special traditions of the holiday.
"Many consumers, especially those with kids, aren't interested in convenience, they want experience," said Rick Dungey, a spokesperson for the NCTA. "For other consumers (convenience) is important. Many Christmas tree growers have begun offering more convenient ways to purchase a real tree -- selling them online and having them shipped directly to your home, local delivery and set-up services, pick-up and disposal services after the holidays."
And many growers are offering smaller, three-to-four-foot trees for condo and apartment dwellers, Dungey said.
If you do plan on buying a real tree this season, the National Safety Council urges you to keep in mind that each year more than 400 residential fires involve Christmas trees, killing nearly 40 people and injuring another 100. The council offers the following tips:
The NCTA has the answers to some of the common questions that surround real holiday trees, including:
A few droppings of older, interior needles is natural and normal. But if the color is faded, the bark of the outer twigs is wrinkled and the green, exterior needles easily fall off at a gentle touch or when the tree is bounced on a hard surface, it is too dry.
Always make a fresh cut if possible. After time, the cut stump gets a crusty sap seal and air in the water vessels, which lessens a tree's water absorption capacity. A fresh cut will reopen the pores that take up water.
Only one-half-inch is necessary, not one or two inches as is sometimes instructed.
No. The most efficient water transporting cells are just below the bark. Once the water level falls below the exposed surface on a tapered trunk, drying will begin. An angle or "V" cut will require more water depth to cover the cut surface. It also makes the tree more difficult to hold upright in a stand and less stable.
More and more communities are operating programs to recycle real Christmas trees for a specific purpose -- making it more convenient for consumers who use a real tree to get the tree out of the house after the holidays. In a recent survey, 93 percent of consumers reported recycling their real Christmas tree in a local program or in their own garden or yard.