Real or fake?

It's a classic question every holiday season: real or artificial? When it comes to convenience, you can't beat a quick trip to the attic to retrieve that oldie, but goodie, artificial tree. Most come pre-lit or already dusted with faux snow. For others, it just isn't Christmas without the smell of pine permeating the homestead. The mess, the allergy-induced sniffling, the fire danger — all worth it. But even once the big question is out of the way, questions abound. Here's a guide to surviving the selection and decoration of the holiday classic. (Eggnog not included.)

Paper or plastic?

The Christmas tree industry — yes, industry because it has its own trade group — touts the benefits of live trees. They are classic, they have a pine scent and they are biodegradable.

That makes them enjoyable, unless you object to hauling them, littering your floor with pine needles and scrubbing the sap off your fingers in between making sure the stand has enough water for Mr. Tannenbaum. Allergy sufferers should also beware.

If a real tree isn't for you, you can go with a fake tree sold at most big retailers. They have increased in popularity, but a survey by tree growers showed 28 million farm-grown trees were purchased in 2009 compared with 11 million artificial ones. Still, consider that you have to buy an artificial tree only once.

Choosing the right tree

For starters, make sure to figure out how big a space your tree can occupy in your home. Then, figure out which species of tree you like best. ( christmastree.org offers help).

At the lot, ask how often trees are delivered. Check freshness: Needles should break crisply on fresh trees such as firs, though pine tree needles shouldn't.

If you go to a tree farm, make sure you think about width as well as height. At farms, some trees' width will actually be close to their height, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Hey, Paul Bunyan!

For some people, it's not enough to buy a tree off a sales lot. No, they've got to go all out and cut a tree down themselves. There's more than one way.

At Ergle Christmas Tree Farm near Dade City, they'll provide the saw and the string to bundle a tree. Cost is $25 and up, according to its website (ergletrees.com).

If you're even more adventurous than that, you can traverse the Florida tundra to Ocala National Forest. There, for the price of a $7 permit, you can select and cut your own tree. The U.S. Forest Service started selling permits Nov. 26.

Keep tree and house standing

It's always good to check that the stand has plenty of water. Make sure the trunk is freshly cut. Keep the tree away from heat sources and fireplaces.

Which means no lighted candles on the tree. Place decorative candles in a sturdy, heat resistant place.

Lights should have labels showing they have been tested, and shouldn't be frayed. The manufacturer should note how many strings can be connected safely.

An artificial tree should be labeled "fire resistant." While that doesn't mean it can't catch fire, it does indicate that it is more resistant to burning.

If the artificial tree is metallic, use extreme caution if using electric lights or decorations. Faulty wiring can cause the tree to become electrified.

Keeping it green

Many cities and neighborhoods have drop-off programs or even pick-up service to recycle live trees.

While artificial trees are reusable, they often are made from non-biodegradable materials. Many come from China and are shipped overseas, adding to the carbon footprint they leave behind, environmentalists warn.

Tree farms market themselves as environmentally friendly because they promote the growth of oxygen-generating trees.

On the tree, LED lights use less energy and produce less heat.

Sources: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, National Christmas Tree Association, U.S. Forest Service, Environmental Defense Fund, Times files Photo from iStock.com.

Real or fake? 11/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 10:46am]

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