We have a running debate in our house about the relative benefits of real and fake Christmas trees. Each year for the past 25 years I have made my bid for a real tree. I used to argue for the tradition, the smell of the tree, and the fun of going out as a family to pick the tree each year on the first weekend in December.
And then came the arguments about sustainability and the potential environmental damage of having a real Christmas tree each year. We were told that artificial trees were more sustainable – as long as they were reused for a number of years, as well as being more cost-effective, more convenient and easier to decorate.
Debate has moved on, however, and both in the UK and the US, the argument is now being made that real Christmas trees are more environmentally friendly than artificial trees. Artificial trees are made of plastic, manufactured from oil, and this creates a significant carbon footprint. The Carbon Trust suggests that this, along with the emissions created in the manufacturing process and the long distances that the trees are often shipped once manufactured, further increases the environmental damage caused by these artificial trees. It’s argued that an artificial tree would need to be kept for at least ten years to balance out its manufactured carbon footprint. In contrast, Friends of the Earth suggest that a real tree, if locally or at least UK-grown, and chipped and reused as mulch at the end of the season, is better for the environment. And increasingly, people are looking to purchase trees with roots, or even rent a tree each year that can be returned to the ground at the end of the season to continue removing carbon dioxide from the air between Christmas seasons.
And what about health benefits? We have long known that having living plants in the home is beneficial for our health. Research carried out by NASA showed that spider plants can help purify the air within our homes, acting as a natural air filter to remove pollutants. Other common houseplants have been found to have the same properties, including peace lilys, Boston ferns, and cacti. Some succulents also increase humidity in a room, and herbs like lavender and chamomile have been shown to reduce anxiety. Research published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology suggests further that houseplants in the home or office can reduce stress, and make people feel more comfortable. Multiple other studies have found that plants increase both creativity and productivity within the workplace, and plants in the classroom can improve concentration and attention. In addition, working with plants and horticultural therapy has been found to be beneficial for people with dementia, anxiety and depression.
Christmas trees may have similar beneficial health effects. Exposure to nature has been shown to have psychological benefits, and it is suggested that walking amongst trees can benefit wellbeing. Professor of International Floriculture, Charlie Hall from Texas A&M University suggests that real Christmas trees can improve our immune systems as Evergreen trees produce phytonicide, a chemical that increases the activity of our natural killer cells, which fight viral infections. These trees, he suggests, also have a range of mental health benefits, including reducing both anxiety and depression. He suggests further that an outing with loved ones to pick the tree further boosts our mental health by promoting bonding. Whilst you may get some of the mental health benefits from an artifical tree, the other benefits would not be available.
Even when cut from the ground, the fragrance from a real Christmas tree contains terpenes and esters, aromatic and chemical compounds, which Aromacologist Kim Lahore suggests carry a range of health benefits. These include reducing anxiety, improving sleep, promoting relaxation and reducing aches and pains. Whichever angle you want to take, the argument can be made that real trees are better than artificial trees, or at least have additional benefits that artificial ones do not.
In 1824, Ernst Anschütz wrote the words to a famous Christmas carol, adapted from a 16th-century Silesian folk song. Written in German, it was later translated into English. Whilst Christmas trees were not mentioned in the original 16th-Century folk song, Anschultz turned the song into a carol referencing the evergreen Christmas tree. Long before any formal research had been conducted in this area, the mental health and well-being benefits of Christmas trees were highlighted in the final verse.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree, How lovely are your branches! O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree, How lovely are your branches! Not only green in summer’s heat, But also winter’s snow and sleet. O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, How lovely are your branches!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree, Of all the trees most lovely; O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree, Of all the trees most lovely. Each year you bring to us delight With brightly shining Christmas light! O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree, Of all the trees most lovely.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree, We learn from all your beauty; O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree, We learn from all your beauty. Your bright green leaves with festive cheer, Give hope and strength throughout the year. O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree, We learn from all your beauty.