When it comes to Christmas trees, which kind of symbol do you prefer — real or artificial? In recent stat-studded news stories, Americans seem to be conflicted, but leaning toward artificiality.
On one side, the Defenders of Reality. More than 17 million real Christmas trees are harvested in the U.S. every year, according to The Washington Post. The National Christmas Tree Association — representing natural trees — puts the number a lot higher. The group commissioned a Harris survey showing that in 2013 more than 30 million real trees were purchased while fewer than 15 million fake trees were purchased. Today, there are about 350 million natural Christmas trees growing on farms in all 50 states.
And then there are the Advocates of Artifice. Represented by the American Christmas Tree Association, faux fir vendors report 2014 sales are stronger than last year. A Nielsen survey commissioned by the association in 2013 found that 79 percent of American homes display holiday trees — 20 percent are real, 80 percent are artificial. The Census Bureau reports that China shipped $137.5 million worth of fake trees to the U.S. in the first nine months of 2014.
Each tree group argues that its offering is more popular and more economical and possesses qualities that are beneficial to the environment, the economy and personal health. Some real trees can be replanted; some artificial trees last for years.
“For many, the tradition and experiences and memories created from picking out a special Christmas tree each year is important,” says Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association. “It makes them feel connected as a family. It has meaning. You just can’t get the same thing by dragging a box with plastic and metal parts from storage.”
Also for many, Dungey adds, “using an actual plant, grown by a farmer, rather than a plastic and metal tree-shaped decoration as a centerpiece of holiday decorating is important as a consideration to the environment.”
On the other hand, the American Christmas Tree Association points out on its website that there is “no significant environmental impact from the use of either an artificial or a real Christmas tree. Consumers should feel great about choosing either kind of tree and many consumers are choosing to display both kinds throughout their homes and in their outdoor Christmas displays. Now that’s the Christmas spirit.”
As you can see by the claims and counterclaims, the Authentic vs. Artificial Christmas Tree War seems like a thoroughly modern story, but actually it weaves back through American history like a string of lights — with bright spots and dim bulbs all along the way.
The opposing armies began assembling more than a century ago.
According to lore, German immigrants imported the idea of real Christmas trees to the United States in the mid-19th century. Around the same time, the Germans also brought the fake trees — made of feathers or other materials — to the New World. And it wasn’t too long before Americans were choosing sides.
In an 1873 issue of the journal Manufacturer and Builder, a reader from Brooklyn told of being at a Christmas party when “from a box, elegantly painted … springs an artificial Christmas tree whose branches are laden with tempting fruit.”
The roomful of revelers watches as a gullible young person is invited to pluck a piece of fruit. He reaches for the prize, but “before he has time to take it from the bough, he receives a violent shock in the arm, which obliges him to let go and cry out ‘Oh!’ to the intense delight of all beholders.”
Alas! the reader lamented, “that deception should stoop to such cruelty.”
But then he added: “Can you tell me how such a trick can be carried out?” He planned to use the trick the following Christmas.
Brushing Up On Tradition
As the tree-dition took hold, many Americans — in the spirit of self-reliance — chopped down forest trees and dragged them home through the December drear for decorating. Enterprising entrepreneurs began selling trees to urbanized Americans who didn’t want to venture back into the woods from whence they had fled.
All the while, cagey inventors dreamed of enhancing artificial trees — and making them seem as real as possible.
Offering “new and useful improvements in imitation Christmas trees,” August Wengenroth of Troy, N.Y., received a patent in 1882 for a tree with detachable wire branches covered in chenille.
Other inventors tinkered with the various types of “trees.” And advocates of artifice stepped forward. “Each year there is a scare that Christmas trees are getting scarcer, and the price goes up,” a man from Bristol, Va., told the Nashville Tennessean in 1907. His plaint continued. “The harvest of the trees must necessarily come from a greater distance as the years go by. At the present time the supply comes mainly from the northern part of Michigan, but the forests are being rapidly denuded.”
The man’s solution: the artificial Christmas tree — “which will answer all the purposes of the natural article and at the same time be everlasting. When it has fulfilled its joyous mission, it may be folded up and put away to do duty next season.”
By 1918, the Sears catalog was offering a tabletop artificial tree — with a candle cup on each branch tip — for 98 cents, Nathan Cobb reported in the Boston Globe in 1986. “Probably the most important moment in the history of artificial Christmas trees,” Cobb observed, “occurred during the late 1950s when a startling discovery was made: that brush-making machines — the kind that were used to manufacture, say, bottle brushes or hair brushes — could be adapted to make artificial Christmas trees.”
Brushes ruled the fake tree market from 1960 to 1980, Si Spiegel, president of Hudson Valley Tree Inc. in Newburgh, N.Y., told Cobb. “With plastic branches made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a thermoplastic compound, [the brush tree] became the Ford of the industry.”
In the 1970s, “soft needle” trees began taking over the landscape. And by 1986, artificial trees were in 35 percent of homes in America, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Some 38 percent celebrated with real trees, and 28 percent went treeless.
Imitation trees were also created from other materials — including aluminum, cellophane, fabric and fiber optics.
A Return To Self Reliance
But nowadays there is an alternative movement, a third army that has entered the fray: Proponents of Self-Reliance.
This group also has historical roots. In 1928, the Los Angeles Times reported that a man living in a Redondo Beach apartment took tumbleweeds and sprayed them with a dark green chemical solution. Then he accented the tips of the branches with bright red house paint. “The result,” the writer noted, “is an ornamental tree artistic enough to satisfy the most ardent forestry conservationist.”
Such individual efforts led to widespread arts-and-crafts and hobby shops and Martha Stewart and, voila!, today the DIY Xmas Tree Movement is in full flush. BuzzFeed tells us that Americans are creating Christmas trees from an infinite variety of stuff — old ladders or beer bottles or used books. Even folded $20 bills.
Not to minimize the dastardly 19th century parlor trick of the electrified tree mentioned above, but the fact that people might gather around a tree fashioned from cash … now that is shocking.
The Protojournalist: An experimental storytelling project for the LURVers — Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. @NPRtpj