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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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10 Things You Didn't Know About the Fourth of July
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With 242 years of tradition behind it, the Fourth of July is one of America’s most cherished holidays. It's when we celebrate our nation's mythology with a day off, a backyard barbecue, and plenty of fireworks. But with all that history, you'd be forgiven if you didn't know quite everything about July 4. So from the true story behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to some staggering hot dog statistics, here are 10 things you might not know about the Fourth of July.

1. THE DECLARATION WASN'T SIGNED ON JULY 4 (OR IN JULY AT ALL).

John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumbull [Public domain] // Wikimedia Commons

It might make for an iconic painting, but that famous image of all the Founding Fathers and Continental Congress huddled together, presenting the first draft of the Declaration of Independence for July 4, 1776 signing, isn't quite how things really went down. As famed historian David McCullough wrote, "No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia."

It's now generally accepted that the Declaration of Independence wasn't signed on the Fourth of July—that's just the day the document was formally dated, finalized, and adopted by the Continental Congress, which had officially voted for independence on July 2 (the day John Adams thought we should celebrate). Early printed copies of the Declaration were signed by John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson to be given to military officers and various political committees, but the bulk of the other 54 men signed an official engrossed (finalized and in larger print) copy on August 2, with others to follow at a later date. Hancock (boldly) signed his name again on the updated version.

So if you want to sound like a history buff at your family's barbecue this year, point out that we're celebrating the adoption of the Declaration, not the signing of it.

2. THE FIRST CELEBRATIONS WEREN'T MUCH DIFFERENT THAN TODAY'S.

After years of pent-up frustration, the colonies let loose upon hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Military personnel and civilians in the Bowling Green section of Manhattan tore down a statue of King George III and later melted it into bullets; the King’s coat of arms was used as kindling for a bonfire in Philadelphia; and in Savannah, Georgia, the citizens burnt the King in effigy and held a mock funeral for their royal foe.

Independence Day celebrations began to look a bit more familiar the following year, as the July 18, 1777 issue of the Virginia Gazette describes the July 4 celebration in Philadelphia:

"The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal."

There were even ships decked out in patriotic colors lining harbors and streamers littering city streets. Once you get past the mock funerals and rioting of 1776, modern Independence Day celebrations have stuck pretty close to the traditions started in 1777.

3. EATING SALMON ON THE FOURTH IS A TRADITION IN NEW ENGLAND.

The tradition of eating salmon on the Fourth of July began in New England as kind of a coincidence. It just so happened that during the middle of the summer, salmon was in abundance in rivers throughout the region, so it was a common sight on tables at the time. It eventually got lumped in to the Fourth and has stayed that way ever since, even with the decline of Atlantic salmon.

To serve salmon the traditional New England way, you'll have to pair it with some green peas. And if you're really striving for 18th-century authenticity, enjoy the whole meal with some turtle soup, like John and Abigail Adams supposedly did on the first Fourth of July. (You can still be a patriot without the soup, though.)

4. MASSACHUSETTS WAS THE FIRST STATE TO RECOGNIZE THE HOLIDAY.

Massachusetts recognized the Fourth of July as an official holiday on July 3, 1781, making it the first state to do so. It wasn't until June 28, 1870 that Congress decided to start designating federal holidays [PDF], with the first four being New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This decreed that those days were holidays for federal employees.

However, there was a distinction. The Fourth was a holiday "within the District of Columbia" only. It would take years of new legislation to expand the holiday to all federal employees.

5. THE OLDEST ANNUAL FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION IS HELD IN BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND.

Eighty-five years before the Fourth of July was even recognized as a federal holiday, one tradition began that continues to this day. Billed as "America's Oldest Fourth of July Celebration," the town of Bristol, Rhode Island, has been doing Independence Day right since 1785.

The festivities began just two years after the Revolutionary War ended, and 2017 will be its 232nd entry. Over the years the whole thing has expanded well beyond July 4; the town of 23,000 residents now begins to celebrate the United States on Flag Day, June 14, all the way through to the 2.5-mile July 4 parade. What began as a "patriotic exercise"—meaning church services—has morphed into a cavalcade of parades, live music, food, and other activities.

6. AND THE SHORTEST PARADE IS IN APTOS, CALIFORNIA.

From the oldest to the shortest, the Fourth of July parade in Aptos, California, is just a hair over half a mile long. Taking up two city blocks, and measuring just .6 miles, this brief bit of patriotism features antique cars, decorated trucks, and plenty of walkers. Afterward, there's a Party in the Park, where folks can enjoy live music, food, and games.

7. THERE ARE AROUND 15,000 INDEPENDENCE DAY FIREWORKS CELEBRATIONS EVERY YEAR.

Fireworks burst over New York City.
JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, around 15,000 fireworks displays will take place for the Fourth of July holiday (even if some aren't exactly on July 4). Though pricing varies, most small towns spend anywhere from $8000-$15,000 for a fireworks display, with larger cities going into the millions, like the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular at around $2.5 million.

8. WE'LL EAT AN OBSCENE AMOUNT OF HOT DOGS.

Around 150 million, to be more specific—that's how many hot dogs will be consumed by Americans on the Fourth of July. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, that amount of dogs can stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times.

In 2016, 70 of those dogs were scarfed down by Joey Chestnut, who won the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition for the ninth time.

9. AND WE'LL SPEND BILLIONS ON FOOD.

Americans will spend big on food and drinks this Fourth. Big to the tune of around $7.1 billion when all is said and done, according to the National Retail Federation. This includes food and other cookout expenses, averaging out to about $73 per person participating in a barbecue, outdoor cookout or picnic.

Then comes the booze. The Beer Institute estimates that Americans will spend around $1 billion on beer for their Fourth celebrations, and more than $450 million on wine.

10. THREE PRESIDENTS HAVE DIED, AND ONE WAS BORN, ON THE FOURTH.

You probably know that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826—50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted. They're not the only presidents to have died on the Fourth, though; James Monroe—the nation’s fifth president—died just a few years later on July 4, 1831.

Though the holiday might seem like it has it out for former presidents, there was one future leader born on Independence Day. The country's 30th Commander-in-Chief, Calvin Coolidge, was born on July 4, 1872.

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These Digital Fireworks Displays Can Help You Celebrate July 4 Wherever You Live
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Every Fourth of July needs to be capped off with a dazzling fireworks display, but depending on where you live, getting to one isn’t always easy. Many states have strict laws around which fireworks you can and can’t use on your own, and if there’s no public show in your town, you may be totally out of luck.

If you’re still craving a show, though, AtmosFX’s digital fireworks displays may be your best bet. These digital, animated fireworks shows can be downloaded from the company’s site where you can then either display them on your TV or project them onto surfaces around your home or backyard. The video options available allow for some customization, so you can either stick with a generic fireworks display or choose some patriotic colors along with a "Happy Fourth of July" message.

The company’s various digital fireworks videos come in at a 1080p HD resolution with sound effects that can be adjusted and customized—which is the perfect alternative to those decibel-busting fireworks displays designed to frighten your beloved pets. Some videos are meant to be displayed on TVs and monitors, while others are for wall projections and window displays. You can buy these à la carte for $6.99 each, or together in a package for $20.

Whether you live in an apartment, a state that prohibits fireworks, or are expecting some wet weather for your Independence Day party, look into a digital alternative by heading to the AtmosFX website.

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