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:

  • Think green. Look for a fresh tree, one that is green. The needles of pines and spruces should bend and not break and should be hard to pull off the branches. On fir species, a needle pulled from a fresh tree will snap when bent, much like a fresh carrot. Also, sap on the trunk may not be appealing when you think about it in your living room, but it's a sign that the tree is healthy.
  • Cut and water. Cut off about two inches of the trunk and put the tree in a sturdy, water-holding stand. Keep the stand filled with water so the tree doesn't dry out.
  • Stand your tree away from fireplaces, radiators and other heat sources. Make sure the tree doesn't block foot traffic or doorways.
  • Only use indoor lights indoors (and outdoor lights only outdoors). Look for the UL label. Check lights for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires, or loose connections. Replace or repair any damaged light sets.
  • Also, use no more than three light sets per extension cord. Extension cords should be placed against the wall to avoid tripping hazards, but do not run cords under rugs.
  • Turn off all lights on trees and decorations when you go to bed or leave the house.

    The NCTA has the answers to some of the common questions that surround real holiday trees, including:

  • Is it okay to buy a tree that is losing its needles?

    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.

  • Is a fresh cut really necessary before putting a tree in a water stand?

    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.

  • How much should be cut off?

    Only one-half-inch is necessary, not one or two inches as is sometimes instructed.

  • Will tapering the base or cutting it at an angle increase the area that takes up water?

    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.

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