Oh Christmas Tree! No Christmas Tree!

John Devitt
John Devitt

In the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday, my friends and I have frequently debated the concept of the Christmas tree.  It seems to be another habit-forming behaviour, more politely regarded as a ‘tradition’ that no one seems comprehend the motive behind.  Whether a live tree or an artificial tree, there is balanced concern on the environmental impacts.  So what is the deal with Christmas trees anyway?

Originally, the Christmas tree has been traced back to the ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews.  Evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands were used to symbolize eternal life.  The tree was simply an icon and not limited by a specific season.  The symbolism of the evergreen tree was frequently used in pre-Christian or ‘Pagan’ winter solstice rites, often to honour sacred trees such as Donar’s Oak, that were targeted for destruction by Christian missionaries.  It wasn’t until the early Renaissance period that the contemporary Christmas tree, as we know it, evolved.  Given the evergreen symbol for eternal life, it is easy to connect how this tradition was easily integrated and adapted by modern Christianity.

Similarly to a well-manicured lawn, the tradition of placing an evergreen tree, decorated with baubles and lights, in your home was a sign of nobility, wealth and prestige.  It was something reserved for only the bourgeois elite that could afford it, until the late 19th century when it became another symbol for the equalizing force of democracy.  Nowadays, cultural, national or secular borders no longer limit having a Christmas tree.

The Christmas tree industry is thriving.  It has been estimated that Americans alone spend over $1.5 billion dollars on Christmas trees each year.  Most of these 35 million plus fir or pine trees are grown on tree farms.  However the artificial market is booming as well.  Approximately17.4 million artificial trees are sold in the United States each year.  Artificial trees are more convenient it is thought, because they are reusable and therefore cheaper than the their ‘organic’ cousins.  The safety of a fake tree is another benefit as natural trees can often pose serious risk of fire hazard.

The largest debate is over the environmental impacts of an ‘authentic’ versus an ‘artificial’ tree.  It is thought that it is better to reuse an artificial tree with a longer lifespan instead of cutting down live trees year after year that provide habitat for wildlife and remove carbon from the atmosphere.  On the other hand, the production and transport of an artificial tree has to be pretty bad too, right?

Ellipsos, a Montreal-based firm speciailizing in issues of sustainability, set out to determine this question once and for all.  In a definitive 2009 independent Life Cycle Assessment, Ellipsos found that a natural tree would generate 3.1 kilograms of greenhouse gases while an artificial tree will produce 8.1 kilograms each year.  In order for an artificial tree to have a reduced impact and match that of a natural tree, the artificial tree would need to be kept and reused annually for at least 20 years.  However, it was found that people tend to keep artificial trees, on average, for only six years.

Natural or artificial, both types of trees still have an ecological impact.  Ellipsos suggests that the best way to offset those carbon emissions would be to carpool, bike or walk to work for only one to three weeks a year.  Ellipsos’ conclusion?  After factoring production, transportation and all methods to offset impact the most ecological choice becomes almost a moot point.  Neither option is great, but neither is that bad either.

If the pressure and commercialism of a Christmas tree is too much and you would like to truly absolve yourself of any cultural or ecological impact that may come with it, then the only logical option becomes resoundingly clear.   It is time to convert and begin celebrating Festivus.  The Festivus for the rest of us doesn’t blindly follow the tradition of cutting and decoration of evergreens.  No, Festivus boldly slashes and burns new territory by celebrating with a simple, unadorned aluminum pole, which can easily be purchased here http://www.shopwagnerb2c.com/FESTIVUS_POLES.

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