Fake Festive Vs. Real Thing

The tale of the modern Christmas tree is a concept that constantly passes through a tale of sustainability, whether the tree is real or fake.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Imagine this newsletter has just four readers. (It doesn’t, at least I hope it doesn’t, but just stick with me for a second.) Based on a statistical breakdown I just pulled up from a press release by an association, just three of you will have a Christmas tree in your home, because, for some reason, you love the idea of putting a tree in your home. But then there’s that other person. Maybe they don’t have a Christmas tree because they don’t observe. Maybe they’re just lazy. Maybe they don’t want one. Maybe they live alone, and, um, what’s the point? As a lazy individual, I feel for that fourth person. In honor of the fact they don’t have a Christmas tree, I’m going to write a bunch of stuff about Christmas trees. I hope it makes your home feel more festive. — Ernie @ Tedium


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The programming language used by CHRISTMA EXEC, the first significant computer worm, released in December 1987. The worm, a picture of a cute ASCII Christmas tree next to the text “A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND MY BEST WISHES FOR THE NEXT YEAR,” spread by itself to computers around the globe from the starting point of an IBM System/370 mainframe at the Clausthal University of Technology. (This is notable because, as ComputerWorld’s James Daly noted in 1992, worms that spread through mainframes during that era were extremely rare—usually it’s a PC-level problem.) If you’d like to learn more about this tale, Tom Scott did a whole video about it way back in 2015.

Feather Christmas Tree


So, what’s the deal with artificial trees? Who came up with that idea?

The artificial Christmas tree has become a symbol of all things convenient. We pull it out once a year, so we don’t have to go somewhere else and pick one up and bring it home. We can just head up to the attic, find it, and then put it up, and forget about it for about 11 months, maybe 10 if we’re lazy.

This is obviously a useful idea. But who determined people would want this, and why?

The answer, it may surprise you, is rooted in conservation.

Hans Carl von Carlowitz

This guy made people think about conservation when they previously did not. (Wikimedia Commons)

Around the year 1700, a man named Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who served as a mining administrator in Saxony, part of modern-day Germany, determined that mining work near the city of Freiburg had caused serious damage to the nearby forest, despite the fact that it was also a valuable resource for the region. He felt the area needed time to recover.

Von Carlowitz’s findings on this topic eventually led him to write a book about it, 1713’s Sylvicultura oeconomica, oder haußwirthliche Nachricht und Naturmäßige Anweisung zur wilden Baum-Zucht, a book that described some of the earliest concepts of sustainable forestry, a topic that few had written about at any length previously. (Good luck finding an English translation. Here’s a German copy of the book.)

He was not the first to discuss the topic—English gardener John Evelyn had presented the basic concept to the Royal Society in a paper as early as 1662. But it was von Carlowitz’s book that stuck. In an article written about his legacy earlier this year, sustainability journalist Erika Schelby noted the depth of his influence:

He rejected short-term thinking. He offered solutions, scientific details, guidelines and practical proposals on how to save, select, nurse, plant, re-grow, maintain and protect forests and their biodiversity. He presented an inventory of conditions across Europe and discussed threats caused by extreme weather conditions, diseases, pests and humans. He pled for careful, frugal consumption and recommended the art of saving timber. His ideas for using energy-efficient stoves in housing or furnaces in smelters, tips on improving the insulation in buildings, and finding substitutes like peat for heating homes are not unlike today’s sustainability efforts.

So you might wonder: What does this have to do with Christmas trees? Glad you asked. Basically, by the late 19th century, it von Carlowitz’s ideas had evolved into a concept called “Nachhaltigkeit,” the literal German word for sustainability. And in an effort to promote this growing interest in sustainability, the country literally banned the harvesting of evergreen in some parts of the country, meaning alternatives were necessary.

If you know anything about Christmas trees, you know that the origin of them actually rooted in Central Europe, which means Germans were in the odd position of not being able to celebrate Christmas with the tradition they arguably invented. Hence, they needed an alternative—and what did they come up with? Dyed goose feathers, tied together with wires. No, really. They were plucking the feathers off of geese—a practice some see as inhumane today—and using those to make sustainable Christmas trees.

An example of a feather Christmas tree, circa 1915.

While created for purely practical reasons in Germany, the trees eventually made it to the United States, even though the U.S., home of the charcoal briquette, arguably had no problem with tree supply.

A 1902 Washington Post story, linked here in PDF form, explained this unusual phenomenon that was being imported into the U.S. for the first time that year.

These trees are made in Germany by the carload. The material employed is wood, papier mache, and glaze paper for the trunk and branches, and goose feathers dyed green for the foliage. As stated in the foregoing, they can be folded up and kept over until the Christmas following, or for several. Some have the music box attachment, and some have not, but all of them are equipped with convenient hooks, clasps, and pegs hidden about in the goose-feather leaves, from which the candy, dolls, and toys can be attached. They are new, the first ever seen in this city, having been placed on sale last week. Most of the stores are selling the decorations and fittings along with the trees, and thus far a majority of the patrons have left orders to have the trees sent to their addresses on Christmas Eve for the festivities, and with the “trimmings” attached.

To be clear, feather trees did not exactly fool anyone. They are poor imitations of the real thing. They look distinctly artificial. But they are convenient, and convenience was something. That meant they were the starting point for more than a century of fake trees that have emerged since.

“I’ll be honest with you, it took some work to make something delicious from evergreens. Lauren and I blitzed, blended, smashed and fried. We put some pine needles in a tea strainer, and it tasted like wee. We made a weird grass-flavoured scotch egg that made us feel really ill. We deep-fried breaded fir needles with disastrous consequences. But we got there in the end: curing, smoking, infusing, baking and pickling our way to a handful of delicious recipes using nuts, berries and needles.”

— A passage from “How to Eat Your Christmas Tree,” a real book written by Julia Geogallis and published in 2020. The idea, says Geogallis, was inspired by the fact that trees are difficult to recycle, making them somewhat of a problematic target from a sustainability standpoint. So if you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em, apparently.

Christmas Tree Farms

These trees took a long time to get ready for chopping down. (Washington State Department of Agriculture/Flickr)

Why, in the modern day, real trees often lose out to fake ones

So, knowing what you now know about the roots of the artificial Christmas tree as a way to allow the tradition to continue while working around sustainability efforts, you might wonder how that affects real Christmas trees today.

Well, one factor worth keeping in mind is that actual Christmas trees take a long time to properly grow, meaning they’re often planted a decade or longer before they can actually be used.

It’s actually a deeply inefficient life cycle, and that makes it difficult to manage. As Jack Manix, a longtime Christmas tree farmer, told Ambook Research last year:

The first thing to understand about Christmas trees is that they don’t grow particularly fast. A tree you find in the store is anywhere from five to 14 years old, depending on its size and variety, grown with seedlings purchased from suppliers. One of the main pressures a Christmas tree farm faces is not overselling in any individual season so that they have enough trees to sell next year. Easy in theory, but hard in practice when you’re standing in front of a field of Christmas trees and telling a family they can’t have one.

“People go, ‘We can go in there and cut! There are some good ones in there!’” Manix said. “I say it’s like cashing in a savings certificate early and paying a penalty. A lot of these could be cut, but next year they’ll be a foot taller and 20 bucks or more. It doesn’t really make sense to sell all the little ones.”

Perhaps for this reason, Christmas trees have sometimes been a target of automation efforts. One particularly fascinating discovery I made on this front dates to 1984, in a PC Magazine piece that described Steve Seeberg, the owner of a major Christmas farm in northern Michigan, who started to use IBM PCs to manage an inventory of around 9 million trees.

“I know everything that has ever happened to every tree. If something goes wrong, I have some idea of what has been done,” Seeberg told the magazine article that highlighted his use of a database tool called PC/Focus, which allowed him to manage his trees on an IBM PC rather than a mainframe.

Even back then, there was a reason to look for an edge. “The Christmas tree business is highly competitive,” Seeberg added. “Anything you can do to streamline procedures helps give you an edge.”

This kind of streamlining is necessary, with some even suggesting the use of Internet of Things devices to manage the crops over a long period. But it can only go so far. On a purely financial front, real Christmas trees lose every time to the fake ones—a recent piece from The Conversation put the cost at between $80 and $100 for a real tree vs. maybe $22 to import a fake one. While the fake ones vary in prices, you can usually find a full-height tree for as low as $50 on Amazon.

None of this accounts for things like smell, feel, and flammability. But it at least contextualizes why a “tree” made from a factory often beats out a tree in a forest. Maybe Hans Carl von Carlowitz was onto something.

Aluminum Christmas Tree

Once hip, then shamed, now kitsch: The aluminum Christmas tree. (Abbey Hendrickson/Flickr)

Four types of artificial Christmas trees that you may (or may not) have seen

  1. Aluminum Christmas trees. These trees, which used metal branches, which often weren’t colored green, represented a space-age attempt to make the holidays a little easier to manage. To account for the lack of green coloring, however, they were usually toned by a color wheel. They fell out of style, however—something actually blamed on A Charlie Brown Christmas, which slagged the trees on its way to honoring the shabby one that the story made popular—only to eventually gain a retro-cool reputation decades later.
  2. Fiber-optic Christmas trees. First becoming popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but invented decades earlier, these trees found popularity in part because of a feature that made them even easier for the average family to manage—built-in lighting that game directly out of the strands. A later patent turned the entire tree into a bunch of fiber optic strands. It was kinda like having a miniature information superhighway in your living room.
  3. Plastic Christmas trees. Modern-day fake Christmas trees are much more realistic than the vintage stuff, utilizing a whole freaking bunch of plastic, while keeping the traditional look. This is the type of stuff that you see the big-box stores selling today, and it’s far more realistic than using feathers and tinsel. Good luck recycling it, though!
  4. Wooden Christmas trees. Yes, the idea of going full circle is a thing, and there is such a thing as the wooden Christmas tree, which is generally designed in a somewhat deconstructionist format, rather than something trying to look realistic. You can find some on Etsy that look like giant Jenga kits.


The percentage of fake Christmas trees imported from China, according to data points from The Nature Conservancy. Despite the high number, U.S. consumers purchase about 10 million trees each year, trees that travel across the ocean in the process. Because of the plastics they use, these trees often cannot be recycled.

Plastic Christmas Tree

A depressing amount of fake Christmas cheer. (via Polygroup)

So, most of our fake Christmas trees can’t be recycled. Do we have any options?

What if I told you that the company that makes a huge percentage of artificial Christmas trees sold globally is also well-known for selling inflatable floaties for use in the pool or at the beach?

No, I’m not making that point up, and it’s actually kind of fascinating. The plastics firm Polygroup, which hails from Hong Kong, is best known for three lines of products—two lines of fake Christmas trees (one with lights, one without), and a line of inflatable flotation devices. It’s like Polygroup is a brand that doesn’t care about Spring or Fall, just wanting us to embrace them during the Summer and Winter. (Call it Solstice manufacturing.)

But one thing that’s fascinating about them is that they’re actually working on the tree-recycling problem. In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post, the company announced it was taking steps to improve its sustainability by creating a recycling loop for fake Christmas trees, to improve its use of post-consumer recycled materials.

“One day, I want to be able to tell our consumers that this tree is made using 100 percent post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics, and all the energy used to make this tree comes from the sun, from natural and replenishable energy sources,” the company’s CEO, Elmer Chang, told the newspaper.

While it may not solve all of our problems, at least they’re trying?!

There was a year in my 42 years of existence that my Christmas tree was a painting on a slider window. It was the first year my now-wife and I were together. We had planned on going up for the holidays to see her family, but I ran into an unexpected health issue that was serious enough that I couldn’t travel, unfortunately.

So, as a plan B, we stuck around her apartment. She painted a green tree, with black edges, along with some ornaments, while I was mostly laid up in bed. It was a wonderful tree; it more than lived up to the intention, even if it wasn’t the tree we had planned for.

I think again about that theoretical fourth person who does not have a tree, regardless of choice. And I think to myself, even if you don’t have a tree, what really matters is what that tree represents to you. The people you care about, the memories you have, the intentions it allows you to experience in some small way.

Perhaps it’s why that tree, for whatever reason, meant something important to us, even if, when broken down, it was literally just a painting on a pane of glass. It wasn’t the Christmas we wanted, the one we had planned for. It was the Christmas we got, though, and that was fine all the same.

Fake tree or no, ramshackle painting or fluffed-up tree, make it your own this year.


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And have a happy holiday! See you after Christmas!

Correction: We misstated the aluminum tree’s relation to the Charlie Brown Christmas tree—and we’re sorry about that. We clarified the section, and regret the error.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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