No statistics are available on this, but personal data collected over many decades indicates that our relationship with the Christmas tree begins to shift between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon on Christmas day. Daylight isn’t a good look on a tree. Also, nothing is at its best surrounded by crumpled up wrapping paper and the sounds of someone whining about needing batteries.

By the time you read this, it’s possible you may even hate the thing. Or at least resent it.

“So wasteful,” you might be telling yourself. “Next year, no way am I dragging a freshly killed tree into my house and propping it up. How did the Germans convince us all to buy into this nonsense anyway?”

That’s what the Grinchiest of us are thinking. For more gentle souls, the disquiet may not begin to stir until say, the 29th, when you’re changing the bag in the vacuum cleaner again and wondering how the needles made it into the upstairs bathroom. If you’re a child, the Christmas tree doesn’t start to look sad until the second week in January, if that.

Of course, it’s not really the Christmas tree you’re grousing about. The tree is merely the symbol for a season of giving that can feel – especially if you care about sustainability – somewhat over the top. You went searching for the balsam fir (most likely, if you live in Maine), you bickered with your father or your child or your girlfriend about which one was the best, you hauled it back home on the top of your car and then you decorated it to make it truly unique to your family. It was a beautiful thing, but suddenly it feels like a waste dilemma.

Don’t blame the tree. Its limbs might have harbored plastic toys and yet another ugly sweater, but the Christmas tree is ultimately one of the least offensive pieces of the sustainability puzzle created by the Great Western Christmas industrial complex.


Consider this: The latest figures available from the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Census of 2012 indicate that Americans harvested just over 17 million trees at Christmas time. Of these, 196,000 were cultivated and then cut down in Maine from about 6,000 acres of planted trees. Despite how wooded Maine is, we’re not even close to the largest Christmas tree-producing state in the Union; that honor goes to Oregon, where 6.4 million trees were harvested in 2012.


Most of us are able to get our trees locally. And many of our growers, like Walter Gooley of Conifer Tree Farm in Farmington, who has about 20 acres in production, aren’t sending the trees far. “The larger growers do ship some trees out of the state of Maine,” Gooley said. “But, by and large, operations like myself don’t. I just sell locally.” (A notable exception is Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, which has been shipping thousands of wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery since 1992. It’s hard to fault that carbon footprint, and worth noting that Worcester doesn’t cut trees down to make its balsam wreaths; it just trims.)

While they were growing, those trees, which average between seven and 10 years old when harvested, did plenty of carbon sequestering. Also, likely some songbird sequestering. “The number of birds that nest in these Christmas trees is astronomical,” Gooley said. The dense trees that are so in vogue right now are thick enough to protect them from hawks and other predators. What about when he and other tree farmers are shaping the trees in the summer months? That sounds disruptive. Gooley claims not. “They’ll fly out of their nests, but they go back.”

Nesting definitely doesn’t happen in artificial trees. Or much else of worth. A 2009 study by the Montreal company Ellipsos, a consulting firm specializing in sustainability issues, found that artificial trees have three times the negative impact on climate change and resource depletion than natural trees. “Natural” being a relative term here; nearly all Christmas trees sold are grown on farms that spray the trees with herbicides and pesticides to ward off insects and disease and keep them looking just so. According to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assocation, Maine has only three certified organic Christmas tree farms: Winterberry Farm in Belgrade, East Branch Farm in Durham and Skyscraper Hill in Brooks, although at least one other isn’t certified but grows organically.

1127690_suet.jpgPatty Cormier,district forester with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, says it is a struggle for tree farmers to get the uniform look most customers require without using some chemical firepower against insects. “For the most part, it is a constant battle and the tree is going to suffer without some kind of control.”


That said, she has her own private stash of Christmas trees, in the form of a miniature farm (6 rows) she’s planted on her property, and she raises them organically. They might not look store-bought but “they are acceptable to us,” she said.

“Anyone with a little piece of land could grow their own Christmas trees,” Cormier said. “It doesn’t take a lot of space.”

1127690_lily.jpgShe’s got happy memories of harvesting what you might think of as “wild caught” trees as a child with her father on their land. In those days, imperfections in a tree were par for the course. “If there was a limb missing, my father would just drill a hole and plug one in.”

Ours did the same. But even the sprayed farmed tree still has less of a negative impact, sustainability-wise. The findings from the Ellipsos study were based on the premise that an artificial tree, which is made from petroleum-based products, is used for at least six seasons. So you’d have to keep assembling and disassembling that three-times-as-bad artificial tree for 20 years for it to have the same carbon footprint as a natural tree. In short, you likely shouldn’t feel worse about buying a freshly cut tree, or cutting one down yourself, even if you drove 20 miles to do so, than buying a fake tree at the ‘Mart and keeping it around for a few seasons.

Plus, now you know you’ve got options for the tree after Christmas, even if you miss the curbside Christmas tree recycling program offered by your city or town. This happens to us pretty much every year; we drag it out there a week late and watch the snow pile up around it, hoping that the recycling guys will take pity on us and take it away even though the deadline is past.

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