The Eternal Christmas Tree





I bought a new Christmas tree: there is a phrase that should tip you off.

I never had an artificial tree in the house when our sons were little. Every year, real pines filled the high-ceilinged bay window in our old house or pressed the ceiling in that other house. Their natural shagginess and irregularity as living things, their forest fragrance, the depth of their colors in different qualities of light, were the very meaning of our home at the holidays.

Both boys are in college now. By the time they got through finals and made it home they just wanted to walk in on finished prep for Christmas. From my angle, no one was around to share in the task or variable pleasantry of buying, transporting, and putting up a real tree. Everybody will split before the cleanup of a real tree would be needed, too. I used a small fake tree the last year or two anyway, set on a trunk to make it look bigger, which was an accommodation and therefore a little sad.

This year I ordered one of those Amazon Choice deals, a six-footer for fifty-nine bucks. It was supposed to arrive in a couple of days, but I started getting warnings it might be delayed to the point I could ask for a refund. It did arrive, eventually, but by a long path that made me cringe: Manufactured in China, it had been staged somewhere in Texas, got picked up and driven to Dallas, was flown to the Chicago area, driven to Plainfield, Indiana, then to Berkeley, Missouri, then to Granite City, Illinois, then to my local Amazon facility, and was finally delivered to my door.

Ecologically, this tree is a consumerist nightmare before Christmas. I have the feeling did not include its tortured route in their estimation of carbon footprints of artificial versus real trees. (Real: 3.5 kilograms of CO2 per tree. Fake: 40kg per two-meter tree.)

This tree is made of PVC, of course. It came in three pieces with poorly translated instructions for assembly that predicted the need for 30-120 minutes of “fluffing” to make it look at all convincing. Fluffing meant straightening all the branches and spreading their tips to cover sightline holes to its metal trunk. The company was lucky; I have seen a tree and know what it is supposed to look like. The plastic stunk some, and the fake needles pricked me and made my skin break out, but I stuck to it for the necessary ninety minutes.

“I’m a fluffer,” I told my friend Larry, scratching my forearms and hands. The tree did not come “pre-lighted,” and one of my old strings of lights electrocuted me, repeatedly but gently, perhaps as an accommodation for the season.

The oddest part of fake trees is that they seem to show we do not actually want the ephemeral meaning of a holiday that regards the frailty of humans in time. A Christmas tree celebrates the passing-through of the dark season and how our pagan roots are long enough past that they can stand in a corner of the living room, warmly lighted, offering gifts. A real tree is a sacrifice, a once-living being nailed to its stand, bleeding sap, a star on its crown. The artificial tree has no smell, no bark, no particularity. It never faced a north wind or nurtured a cardinal.

How we romanticize Christmas, making things cozy with the lie of no-change, no-corruption, no-death. We decorate our lives with cartoons. None of that makes a difference to my dear, weird, sixteen-year-old cat, who sits under the lighted tree and adores it, and now and then takes a nostalgic bite. says a plastic tree like this one only makes sense for the environment if you use it, instead of a real tree, for at least twelve years. I might. In fact, it will not rot for six hundred years, so my twentieth-generation offspring might huddle around it in the post-apocalyptic cold, thanking me for investing in it. Amortized, it comes out to three-hundredths of a cent per day. That is quite a deal.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.