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TREES, PLEASE: A Tale of Firs—From Farms, Not Factories

Christmas at the Rivet house always includes a large, fragrant, fresh-cut tree decorated with hand-me-down ornaments.

By Robin Rivet.

In the winter of 1953, an inner-city husband arrived home on Christmas Eve. He carried a three-foot balsam fir tree into his tiny, high-ceilinged cellar apartment on the lower east side of New York City. His rural-raised wife quickly burst into tears of dismay. My soon-to-be parents were youthful law students, and couldn’t afford much luxury. However, many hours later, the entry doorbell rang—and all my mother could see was evergreen foliage. Seeing her tears earlier that evening and embarrassed by his inexperience in the value of real Christmas trees, my dad had abruptly left and ultimately returned with the largest fir he could rustle in Manhattan.

After that fateful evening, our growing family soon grew accustomed to twelve-foot floor-to-ceiling conifers, even if they were decorated with edibles or hand-me-down ornaments in musty boxes and strings of aging lights that took hours to unwind. For this child, that began a lifetime of tree reverence.

Forward 65+ years. These days, I don’t need religious pretext to lug a large, fragrant, fresh-cut tree into my home, although I confess to annually exhuming a box of nostalgic ornaments out of my attic. Dragging an aromatic tree indoors for a few weeks during winter is still a rewarding San Diego experience. And, at least for me, the bigger, the better. The welcoming scent greets me when entering my home. Electronics get silenced and I sit quietly near our tree. I breathe deep. It is a precious gift. A calm and stress-free feeling ensues. That is priceless. Regardless of faith or existing traditions in your household, you wouldn’t be disappointed.

Ironically, of the approximately 78% of households in America that already buy holiday trees, approximately 81% of those families now purchase artificial types. These are typically manufactured from PVC, and shipped from factories in China. From my point of view, this not particularly sustainable since few people will actually use the same fake tree long enough to mitigate its negative environmental footprint. They are not recyclable, some contain lead, and others may be more flammable then real trees. Of larger concern to me is the declining appreciation for natural trees—both indoors and out.

A San Francisco Bay Area Christmas tree farm. Image courtesy of Peter Kaminski.

In fairness, the use of substitute or man-made greenery is an old idea, and long before coniferous trees became a Christian holiday custom (which wasn’t until the mid-1800s in America), ancient peoples would hang evergreen boughs over their doors to ward away evil spirits or illness, and many cultures used all sorts of greenery surrogates to celebrate the winter solstice. Today, Christmas trees are grown in all fifty states, where they help purify ground water. Most commercial tree farms replant two or three new trees for each one harvested, and they are often grown on sloped land, ill-suited to other purposes. These trees provide an economic boon for rural regions, and an acre of fir farms can consume 12,000 pounds of CO2 per year. Unless you buy a live, containerized tree and intend to plant it, buying a fresh-cut fir or local pine might be a feel-good choice.

Member Robin Rivet is an ISA Certified Arborist, TRAQ tree risk assessor, and City of La Mesa Environmental/Sustainability Commissioner. She can be contacted at

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