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Pine vs. PVC: How Real and Fake Christmas Trees Compare

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Making the trek to a Christmas tree farm and picking out the perfect pine to brighten up your home is a cherished holiday tradition. Unless, of course, you belong to a family of artificial tree loyalists, in which case you may ring in the season by unloading plastic branches from the attic.

The fake-versus-real tree debate has only gotten more heated in recent years. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the number of artificial trees purchased in the U.S. rose from 11.7 million in 2009 to 18.6 million in 2016. Real trees still outnumber fake ones, but they’re gradually becoming less popular: Only 27.4 million real Christmas trees were brought home in 2016 compared to 28.2 million in 2009.

If you’re not committed to one tree over the other, choosing a camp to side with may feel overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be that way: Here are some factors to consider when selecting the best tree to deck your halls.

COST

Cost is a top priority to many families picking out a Christmas tree. Both varieties of tree vary in price based on size, quality, and vendor. But while most real Christmas trees fall in the $25 to $100 range, fake trees can get much more expensive. “There are literally hundreds of styles, brands, shapes, and sizes,” Jamie Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association (not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree Association), tells Mental Floss. “The price can be anywhere from $25 into the thousands.”

But even if you find a handsome real tree that’s cheaper than a fake one of similar size and quality, it’s not necessarily the better deal. One artificial tree can last you several seasons, making it cheaper than yearly trips to the tree farm in the long run.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

This may be the most controversial point in the great Christmas tree debate. Artificial trees, one side argues, are the more environmentally-friendly option because they can be used year after year. But according to real tree advocates, the carbon dioxide emitted during the production of one fake tree still outweighs the impact of several authentic ones. So what’s the smarter choice for tree-buyers who want to stay green?

If you’re on Team Artificial Tree, about seven years is the length of time you need to own one before you can claim it was an earth-conscious purchase. Even then, some would argue that eventually dumping it in a landfill cancels that out. Real trees, on the other had, are easily recycled. Many towns process the discarded trees that are collected at the end of the holiday season and use the chips as mulch for public gardens, cushion for hiking trails, and even as fuel to supplement the energy grid. When trees aren’t mulched, they can be re-used whole as underwater habitats, flood barriers, and stimulation for zoo animals.

There's also the issue of transportation. If the nearest Christmas tree farm is 40 minutes away while the closest department store is down the street, that adds to your carbon footprint. But according to Warner, there are better ways to be kind to the environment during the holiday season than stopping yourself from buying the tree you want. “If you really want to have an impact on your carbon footprint, try not driving for one day during the holidays,” he says.

SCENT

Sorry, fake Christmas tree fans: Nothing beats the smell of a fresh pine tree during the holidays. Of course, it is possible to replicate that festive aroma with scented artificial sprigs and Christmas tree spray, but if smell is really that important to you, why not go with nature’s best air freshener?

Of course, a house that reeks of authentic pine isn’t a plus for everyone. Some people may hate the scent, while others may have an allergic reaction to it. If that’s the case, an unscented plastic tree is the obvious choice.

SAFETY

It may look pretty, but electric lights wrapped around 7 feet of kindling isn’t the safest combination to have in the house. The National Fire Protection Association reports that U.S. fire departments respond to about 200 home fires that start with Christmas trees per year. Of course, that number looks small compared to the millions of households with real trees that make it through each season accident-free. To ensure you belong to the latter group, don’t forget this golden holiday rule: There must be water in your tree’s base at all times. Healthy, watered trees are less susceptible to flames, while dry trees are dangerously flammable.

Synthetic trees are less likely to burn your house down because most are made with a fire-resistant material called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). But while rare, fake tree fires have been known to happen, often due to malfunctions in old, built-in electrical wiring.

EFFORT

Cutting down, transporting, and decorating a tree may be an essential part of the holidays for some families, but for others it’s a hassle. If families have a tree waiting for them in storage, they may be less likely to wait until the last minute to put it up. The easiest artificial trees to set out open up umbrella-style and come with the lights built in. Other models require some assembly before they’re ready to decorate, but once you own one you can prepare it without ever leaving home.

Artificial trees continue to be low-maintenance throughout the holiday season, while real trees need to have the water in their stands refreshed once a day. Even after all that effort, owners are usually left with a mess of brown, dry needles by New Year's. Some municipalities will collect your old tree from the curb in late December/early January, but there are places where you may be required to go out of your way to make sure the tree is disposed of properly. With fake trees, clean-up is as easy as wrapping it in a bag and storing it in a dry place.

AESTHETIC APPEAL

There’s no reason to hold Christmas trees to a single set of beauty standards. The trees, whether real or fake, come in different forms to satisfy different tastes. Over-achievers may choose the biggest fir on the farm, while Charlie Brown fans may find something scrawnier endearing. On the artificial side, shoppers have even more options: There are upside down trees, fiber-optic trees, and even aluminum trees left over from their heyday in the 1960s. Christmas trees are meant to be decorative, so pick whatever suits your unique style best.

What’s the final word in the fake-tree-versus-real-tree saga? That whatever option you choose is between you and your family. So go ahead and buy the gaudiest, messiest, most high-maintenance tree you can find. If your feelings change, there’s always next year.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Live Smarter
3 Reasons Why Your New Year's Resolutions Fail—and How to Fix Them
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You don’t need a special day to come up with goals, but New Year’s Day is as good a time as any to build better habits. The problem is, by the time February rolls around, our best laid plans have often gone awry. Don’t let it happen this year: Heed these three simple tips for fail-proof resolutions.

PROBLEM 1: THEY’RE TOO OVERWHELMING

Let’s say your goal is to pay off $5000 worth of credit card debt this year. Since you're giving yourself a long timeframe (all year) to pay it down, you end up procrastinating or splurging, telling yourself you’ll make up for it later. But the longer you push it off, the bigger and more overwhelming your once-reasonable goal can feel.

Solution: Set Smaller Milestones

The big picture is important, but connecting your goal to the present makes it more digestible and easier to stick with. Instead of vowing to pay off $5000 by the end of next December, make it your resolution to put $96 toward your credit card debt every week, for example.

In a study from the University of Wollongong, researchers asked subjects to save using one of two methods: a linear model and a cyclical model. In the linear model, the researchers told subjects that saving for the future was important and asked them to set aside money accordingly. In contrast, they told the cyclical group:

This approach acknowledges that one’s life consists of many small and large cycles, that is, events that repeat themselves. We want you to think of the personal savings task as one part of such a cyclical life. Make your savings task a routinized one: just focus on saving the amount that you want to save now, not next month, not next year. Think about whether you saved enough money during your last paycheck cycle. If you saved as much as you wanted, continue with your persistence. If you did not save enough, make it up this time, with the current paycheck cycle.

When subjects used this cyclical model, focusing on the present, they saved more than subjects who focused on their long-term goal.

PROBLEM 2: THEY'RE TOO VAGUE

“Find a better job” is a worthy goal, but it's a bit amorphous. It's unclear what "better" means to you, and it’s difficult to plot the right course of action when you’re not sure what your desired outcome is. Many resolutions are vague in this way: get in shape, worry less, spend more time with loved ones.

Solution: Make Your Goal a SMART One

To make your goal actionable, it should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. When you set specific parameters and guidelines for your goal, it makes it easier to come up with an action plan. Under a bit more scrutiny, "spend more time with loved ones" might become "invite my best friends over for dinner every other Sunday night." This new goal is specific, measurable, time-bound—it ticks all the boxes and tells you exactly what you want and how to get there.

PROBLEM 3: YOU FELL FOR THE “FALSE FIRST STEP”

“A false first step is when we try to buy a better version of ourselves instead of doing the actual work to accomplish it,” Anthony Ongaro of Break the Twitch tells Mental Floss. “The general idea is that purchasing something like a heart rate monitor can feel a lot like we're taking a step towards our fitness goals,” Ongaro says. “The purchase itself can give us a dopamine release and a feeling of satisfaction, but it hasn't actually accomplished anything other than spending some money on a new gadget.”

Even worse, sometimes that dopamine is enough to lure you away from your goal altogether, Ongaro says. “That feeling of satisfaction that comes with the purchase often is good enough that we don't feel the need to actually go out for a run and use it.”

Solution: Start With What You Already Have

You can avoid this trap by forcing yourself to start your goal with the resources you already have on hand. “Whether the goal is to learn a new language or improve physical fitness, the best way to get started and avoid the false first step is to do the best you can with what you already have,” Ongaro says. “Start really small, even learning one new word per day for 30 days straight, or just taking a quick walk around the block every day.”

This isn’t to say you should never buy anything related to your goal, though. As Ongaro points out, you just want to make sure you’ve already developed the habit a bit first. “Establish a habit and regular practice that will be enhanced by a product you may buy,” he says. “It's likely that you won't even need that gadget or that fancy language learning software once you actually get started ... Basically, don't let buying something be the first step you take towards meaningful change in your life.”

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