Real Christmas tree or artificial? It’s been a debate for decades.

With Statistics Canada reporting more than 1,300 tree farms and 2.4 million trees exported in 2021, the real tree remains a popular option.

But so are artificial trees, which are imported en masse to Canada, with more than $60 million in sales in 2021.

Those who want a real tree this year will have to pay the price as Christmas prices increase along with inflation. In Ottawa, trees can range widely in price and can run to more than $100. But even the fake trees aren’t cheap. For example, Canadian Tire’s “top pick” artificial tree is retailing this year for $120.

The Christmas tree tradition can be traced back to the Middle Ages in Germany and has brought people together during the holiday season for centuries. But beyond the smell of pine and the allure of lights and ornaments there are more nuanced considerations to choosing a tree.

Both real and artificial trees carry some environmental concerns.

Sandy Smith, the director of forestry programs at University of Toronto, gets a real fir tree every year at Christmas.

Smith said artificial trees are of greater environmental concern than real ones. A life-cycle analysis of the artificial brand — which evaluates environmental impact from extracting materials used in the trees to final decomposition — can be far worse for artificial trees than real ones, she says. Artificial trees are often transported greater distances to be sold and are made of materials that decompose very slowly, including plastics and microplastics.

“I worry much more about agricultural environmental impacts” from artificial trees than from the effects on forests of getting a real tree, said Smith.

For longtime Ottawa resident Rosemarie Harrison, Christmas tree traditions have changed over the years, but for decades now she has displayed an artificial Christmas tree.

Growing up in Saskatchewan, she always had a real tree. Now, she feels, the sustainability of keeping real trees in homes is not there, “especially with all the stripping that they’ve done of trees out in British Columbia and probably in New Brunswick as well.”

She’s not alone. A poll from the American Christmas Tree Association found that nearly 77 per cent of respondents are putting up an artificial Christmas tree this year.

Asked what they liked most about an artificial Christmas tree, consumers polled cited the easy set-up and take-down and the consistent appearance. Half of respondents also said easy maintenance was their primary reason for purchasing an artificial tree. 

Harrison said she prefers her tree for its convenience and because artificial trees are less of a fire hazard. When she was growing up, she said, her family had real candles “sitting on the tree” on a tin-foil plate. 

“You really had to have a very green tree to do that,” she said.

Christmas pine trees displayed at Orléans Cedars Landscaping and Hedges. [Photo @ Kyle Magee]

Smith said she likes to support the the real Christmas tree industry as 'they've invested a lot like any farmer or grower" and it's a tradition that can bring together the family.

“People love to go out with their family, it’s a winter event,” said Smith.

She said if a study showed her the real Christmas tree industry was worse for the environment than the artificial variety, she'd have to re-evaluate.

"Maybe I'd just put twinkling lights on my house plant and call it a Christmas tree."

Tanya Mitchell-Reyes said she decorated her boyfriend's artificial tree with his family this year.

"It's just easier to get an artificial tree to use every year. It saves money and it's less of a hassle. A real tree drops a lot of pine needles too so it's just cleaner," the Ottawa resident said.

She also noted the aftermath of Christmas is a lot easier with an artificial tree. "I know with other people they didn't like having to get rid of the tree, where as I can just pack it up and use it again next year."

Harrison said real Christmas trees remind her of an old tradition of going into the woods with her family in Nova Scotia and finding the right tree for their home.

“Even though the artificial ones can be quite nice and pretty, they're not the same as a real Christmas tree and they don’t quite bring back the memories for me,” said Harrison.