Keep It Real

Rich Lowry

12/20/2007 8:00:51 PM - Rich Lowry

If getting a real Christmas tree seems too much trouble, consider the case of Frederick Dominguez and his three kids. After church on Sunday, they headed into the Northern California mountains to find a tree, and lost their bearings. They spent three days huddling in a culvert from snowstorms until rescuers found them and flew them out with helicopters.

And you thought driving to the local Christmas-tree lot and shoving the thing onto the back of your car was a pain?

There is a great culture struggle afoot in the land. It's the quiet battle between patrons of real and artificial Christmas trees. It's quiet because no one who trudges down to the basement every year to unpack the fake tree is going to want to brag about it, even if it's a state-of-the-art model with built-in lights, fully hinged branches and -- as the artificial-tree seller Treetopia boasts of its models -- "an extra-long extension cord with on/off foot pedal."

Feeling all warm and fuzzy yet? A silent majority has nonetheless been moving to artificial trees. Fakes have risen from about 50 percent of all trees to as much as 70 percent now. This brazen raid on market share has instigated a fierce counterattack by the National Christmas Tree Association. The association is not inhibited by the holiday season from viciously negative attacks on fake trees as un-American monstrosities that expose you and yours to ... DANGEROUS CHEMICALS! MANUFACTURED IN CHINA!

Fake trees are indeed overwhelmingly made in China (85 percent). But the chemical in question is polyvinyl chloride, which doesn't represent a threat to hearth and kin. The natural-tree people have their own safety issues. To listen to fire officials warn about the hazards of an inadequately watered natural tree makes bringing a Douglas fir into the home sound almost as foolhardy as singing carols around a Molotov cocktail.

Here's the U.S. Fire Administration's description of fire touching a dry tree: "Within three seconds of ignition, the dry Scotch pine is completely ablaze. At five seconds, the fire extends up the tree and black smoke with searing gases streaks across the ceiling. Fresh air near the floor feeds the fire. The sofa, coffee table and the carpet ignite prior to any flame contact. Within 40 seconds, 'flashover' occurs."

Pass the eggnog, and the fire extinguisher. Then there's the environment. Greens can't stand the idea of cutting down a live tree, only to cruelly display it for a few days, then discard it by the side of the road. Here, though, the natural-tree people have a strong case: Fakes are destined to live on for countless centuries in landfills, while natural trees can be mulched and are farmed (and replenished) like any other crop. All that tree-growing contributes to the ultimate Christmas value, at least in a certain segment of America: carbon sequestration.

The back-and-forth arguments obscure what should be a common-sense tree compromise. Adults with no children or grown children can be forgiven for opting for the convenience of a fake tree, so long as it is not -- sampling again from Treetopia's offerings -- pink, candy-apple red or silver stardust. A decent respect for the opinion of mankind demands that even a fake tree be green. But parents with small kids must -- on pain of critical behind-the-back clucking from neighbors -- choose natural trees.

A natural tree is part of the delight of Christmas and what makes it a season of sweet anticipation for kids. There's the excitement of picking out a tree, setting up a tree, decorating a tree and -- of course -- finding what's under the tree on Christmas morning. It's all about the buildup, and the magical sense of the out-of-the-ordinary, to which having an honest-to-goodness 6-foot pine tree in the living room, shedding needles and leaning precariously toward catastrophic collapse, makes an irreplaceable contribution.

Once this compromise is accepted, we can begin to fight over the really important stuff: white lights or colored lights?