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The Christmas Tree Question

Driving home from Thanksgiving at my parents’ home, I was struck by how many people were already decorating for the winter holidays. You won’t ever find our family hanging lights the day after Thanksgiving, but you will find my husband outside digging a big hole in the almost-frozen ground to prepare for Christmas.

Waiting for a tree…

The big hole is for our live Christmas tree. Each year we buy a small potted Blue Spruce tree mid-December, hang it with lights, and leave it in front of the house until Christmas Eve. A couple days before Christmas, we bring the tree inside, decorate it with ornaments, and enjoy it until the day after Christmas, when we lower it into the already-dug hole and tuck it in for the winter. I like that we are adding a tree to New Hampshire’s forests each year instead of taking a tree away.

Last year’s Christmas tree over the summer and in the first snow this past week.

The live Christmas tree is our family’s solution to the Christmas Tree Question (i.e. how can I justify cutting down a live tree every year just to trash it a month later?). It has worked for us no matter where we have lived because we can always find someone happy to have a lovely tree planted in their yard, even if we are renting and can’t plant it ourselves. There are other answers to the question (including sustainable ways to cut a tree), but first, let’s deal with artificial trees…

But first, Artificial Trees: I have read articles in the past saying this is the most environmentally sustainable road to go, as long as you keep using your artificial tree for at least ten years, but I can’t find any good source for that statement (in fact, the only study I found was commissioned by companies that make fake trees). I did find this article from the Nature Conservancy, that says cutting a living tree is better than artificial trees because it supports forested land. Because forests, even if they are managed Christmas tree forests, are better than no forests.

So don’t buy an artificial tree because you think it’s better for the planet (it’s not), but, if you already have an artificial tree, take good care of it. And, if you’re done with it, please donate it to someone else instead of trashing it! Unlike real trees, artificial ones won’t break down into soil again and they leach nasty chemicals into landfills when you toss them.

Here are some fun solutions to the Christmas Tree Question (check out the last one, if you still plan to cut a tree):

Decorate an Indoor Plant: We did this for a few years before we started buying the live Christmas trees. We had a big tropical houseplant that resembled a Christmas tree and we decorated it each year at Christmastime. I liked this solution, but I am not great with houseplants and it died. It also didn’t give us the opportunity to add to the forest, an aspect I like about the planting a live tree.

Decorate an Outdoor Tree: One year my friends did this and I thought it was really lovely to go outside and sing around the tree with warm drinks and puffy coats. This solution gives you the opportunity to decorate a big living tree, instead of the little potted ones. It is also fun to think of decorations that birds and squirrels might enjoy too. I think we will do this when our kids get older (and our planted trees grow bigger).

These trees (outside of a school building) would make perfect live tree substitutes if you added some hooks for ornaments.

Make a DIY Christmas Tree: Pinterest has all sorts of beautiful and fun ideas for creating a homemade Christmas tree from pallets, firewood, driftwood, bottles, old skis, or just about anything else you can imagine. Add some hooks and you can hang your ornaments up just like always. We had friends who painted a beautiful Christmas tree on a huge cardboard box they had unfolded and let their daughter decorate it with craft supplies. It was amazing!

Rent-a-Live-Tree: Yes, this is a real thing (at least in some places). Basically, you borrow a live tree from a nursery and then return it afterward. Either they plant it or they keep it for renting next year. You can even request the same tree year after year. I tried to find someone offering it here in New Hampshire, but the closest I found was New York City. California and Europe have several options, if you’re out there. If anyone knows of a rental option here, please let us know.

Cut One, Plant Two: I don’t remember where I heard this idea, but I like it for those who just can’t let go of that fresh-cut tree (believe me, I get it). The idea is, you cut a tree from a local Christmas tree farm (supporting a local business along the way) and then plant two trees in the Spring either in your own yard, if you have the space, or donate them to a public park or library. The catch is you have to remember to plant new trees. I suggest Arbor Day and/or Earth Day as a great time to do this.

But remember, if you cut a live tree, make sure your tree is recycled back into nature either by composting it yourself or by disposing of it properly through your town or city.

A few words on holiday lights… Want a string of lights or two to create a warm holiday glow? Great! Buy some solar-powered ones (or a mini panel to support lights you already own) and turn them on a week or two before your celebration. Then take them down after the holidays. You do not need to be lighting up the night from November to February with hundreds of lights. It’s just plain wasteful!

On that night, Happy December!

– Hannah

PS, Looking for sustainable gifts to put under your sustainable Christmas tree solution? Check out my holiday gift guide from 2020. I’ll be putting out a new one soon. You can also learn about sustainable gift-wrapping here.

Here is our little live tree all dressed up for the holidays. If you LOVE this pink couch and want to learn more about it, please read this post from earlier this year. 🙂

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