The War of the Christmas Trees

Growing up in eco-friendly Maine, Daniel Houghton each year trekked through acres of conifers with his family to saw down the perfect Christmas tree for its solar-heated, earth-sheltered home. The 20-foot tree adorned a tall atrium that soared from below ground up past south-facing windows.

Houghton, now a 24-year-old assistant in the film and media culture department at Middlebury College in Vermont -- and other young professionals like him -- make perfect targets for the National Christmas Tree Association's fierce marketing campaign to boost the once-flagging sales of real trees.

"Our research shows Generation Y is going back to tradition," says NCTA spokesman Becky Rasmussen. "They are interested in family and support environmental causes. These people want fresh trees."

It's come down to a war between the real Christmas trees and the fakes, and the winner depends on who's doing the math.

The National Christmas Tree Association's Web site claims that real tree sales outnumber sales for artificial trees 32.8 million to 9.3 million. But artificial trees are used year after year, and studies commissioned by the artificial tree industry show that 57 percent of all Americans actually own fake trees.

Further, the NCTA claims that plastic trees are made in Chinese sweatshops, harbor cancer-causing and poisonous chemicals, and can go up in flames at the strike of a match.

Real trees, it says, are renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. Nurseries proudly tell customers that one evergreen tree produces enough daily oxygen for 18 people.

Retailers like Redwood, Calif.-based Balsam Hill, which provides high-end fake trees that mimic natural varieties, claim their products are flame-retardant, long-lasting and allergy-free "with no messy needles and cleanup," says Thomas Harman, Balsam Hill's founder and CEO.

"Our trees do not contain lead. The lights contain lead," says Harman, "and if you are buying a real tree, your child gets the same amount. Lights and stands for real trees are also made in China, and real trees are also flammable."

Artificial trees originated in Germany in the 19th century and were made of metal wires and covered with green-dyed bird feathers, according to Addis Brush Co. made the first modern trees in the 1930s, using the same machinery that made toilet brushes.

The NCTA doesn't hesitate to point out the link between fake trees and toilets on its Web site.

Unlike the real-tree purveyors, Balsam Hill caters to baby boomers, not Generation Y, who have turned away from real trees because of the hassle. Fed up with lugging the tree onto the car, watering it and vacuuming the fallen needles, the older crowd wants more convenience, says Harman.

Even in the environmentally correct Houghton household, the Christmas ritual became a stressful ordeal.

"My mother always complained about the hassle," says Houghton. "We'd go out with the saw from Dad's wood shop and drag the darn thing back, branches dragging against the trim and the needles flying on top of the corner cupboards."

Many Generation Y couples, however, put up with the hassle because they like the natural smell and feel of a real tree.

"My parents always had a fake tree," says Sara Barker, 22, a student at Michigan State University, who bought a real tree for the first time this year. "We were in the military and lived in Japan, where it was hard to find a real tree. This year, I told my fiancé we have to have a real tree, and we went out and cut one down."

Family tradition might also lure younger buyers to the fresh tree market, says Maggie Keris, who with her husband has run Keris Christmas Tree Farm in Allentown, N.J., for 16 years.

"We had some kids who had come with their parents when they were young and are now coming back," says Keris. "An artificial tree doesn't last a lifetime. It goes to the dump."

Daniel Houghton certainly understands the family tradition of finding a fresh tree for Christmas. He and his girlfriend just bought a squat, 3-foot tree for their Vermont apartment.

But in a twist of irony, Houghton's father, who had cut the backyard tree so many years ago, has gone the route of like-minded baby boomers and bought a plastic tree for his underground ecologically-correct hobbit house in Maine that he built and designed himself.

Despite what the NCTA's marketing research tells it about the wants and concerns of Generation Y, Daniel Houghton did not buy his short, fat real tree "that looked like no one else would want it" because he's environmentally conscious.

"It's a bit of a stretch that you can practice sustainable forestry by buying a tree," says Houghton. "Christmas is bound up in the American love of consumerism. The tree as a Christian symbol could never represent environmentalism. They are at cross purposes. I felt no righteousness by buying that tree."