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Building a Bigger, Better Christmas Tree

No watering required

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Christmas went high tech years ago. Between overly involved light shows and fake snow for event spaces, artificially enhancing the season is old hat. It’s particularly noticeable, though, when it comes to one of the holiday’s oldest and most natural traditions: the tree.

Of all the holiday traditions, the one that is most important to me is cutting down your own damn tree. All the sad souls in the chain-link-fenced lots surveying their “options” are truly depressing. Here is the proper ranking of Christmas tree acquisition experiences:

  • Getting a permit, walking out into the woods, and cutting down a tree
  • Going to a farm and cutting down a tree
  • Then there’s entering the lots
  • But even beneath going to the cement lots in downtowns and at the sides of freeways is something worse: buying an artificial Christmas tree

When I picture fake trees, I immediately see a white one that used to sit in a childhood friend’s home. It was so shiny and un-tree-like that you could have called it a Christmas cone. But not all fake trees are created equally depressing. There are your drug store creations, spiky and absolutely the wrong shade of green, and then there is the new wave of very accurate artificial trees. If you think about this for just a second, you realize it’s basically the addition of a middleman, because we already have trees that just make themselves — but now there is a whole operation that makes them from scratch. This isn’t to say there haven’t been vast improvements to what look to me like giant, green pipe cleaners. Maybe they can compete with the real thing.

Take, for example, Balsam Hill, the Lexus of artificial-tree makers. The high-tech fake Christmas trees are made to look, feel, smell, and “act” like actual trees. Balsam Hill’s founder, Thomas Harman, grew up with real trees in his home during the holidays, but needed a different solution later in life because of an allergic brother-in-law. Nothing on the market looked real enough, though, so Harman made his own, founding the company in 2006. The branches are molded and designed to look as realistic as possible; the branch tips are even asymmetrical so they don’t have that perfect-fake look. Balsam Hill uses something called “true needle technology” so that the needles look as accurate as real foliage.

(Let that sink in for one second, and then look at these fake tree needles, which do, in fact, look a lot like regular needles. If you added a pine-scented candle to your home, it would be almost like the real thing.)

(Via Balsam Hill)
(Via Balsam Hill)

The trees are highly realistic and the lights are as close to incandescents as you can get on an indoor tree.

(Via Balsam Hill)
(Via Balsam Hill)

Then there’s the installation: Setting up older artificial trees, as I understand it, is not particularly fun — also, “setting up a tree” is not a natural thing to do, so right away it sounds confusing. But Balsam Hill has patented technology that lets pieces slip together more easily.

These trees are not cheap. The Balsam Hill 30-foot Rockefeller Pine costs $19,999 (it’s on sale for $10,999, though). The cheapest version of the Rockefeller the company offers (a 15-footer) will run you $2,199. Jennifer Faulkner, a representative for the company, says an average 7.5-foot tree with all the latest technology will run $1,200 to $1,300. What lights you choose and how tricked out you decide to get your tree will change the price, of course. Balsam Hill’s trees are also famous. They adorn the sets of Ellen, The Doctors, Rachael Ray, Today, and other shows.

Maybe, despite the celebrity endorsements, those prices sound a little steep to you, but you still don’t want to go outside and get a real tree. (Are you afraid of spiders?) Fret not: There are other highly realistic almost-trees that are still costly, but a little less so. Tree Classics’ Real Feel Needle trees have also come a long way from artificial trees of the past. Company representative Tamara Kelly says the branch tips are molded to look accurate, and they are easier to store and set up. “Many of today’s artificial trees last longer and cost less to light because they use LEDs rather than incandescent lights,” she says.

(Via Tree Classics)
(Via Tree Classics)

Tree Classics’ trees range from $99.99 to $1369.99 (at least if they’re on sale — otherwise they can run up to $3,299).

Here’s the thing: The benefits of getting an artificial are (I guess?) ease of use and saving money in the long run. But according to the National Christmas Tree Association, the average cost of a real tree last year was $50.82. So even if you went midrange on a Tree Classics tree, say a $600 option, you wouldn’t save any money for quite a few years.

OK, but maybe none of this matters to you: It’s not about the money, and the fact that we are backward-engineering plastic to look like nature because you want something that is almost real but not real-real doesn’t strike you as strange. If the lure of a high-tech, longer-lasting tree still intrigues you, let’s talk about how they’re made and what they’re made out of.

“The trees are made in China from polyethylene,” says Tree Classics’ Kelly. “It’s a plastic that allows Tree Classics to mold the needles into shapes that resemble real tree branches. It also makes them feel real to the touch, versus feeling like shredded plastic or a toilet brush.” Balsam Hill also said most of its trees are made in China, which contributes to a larger carbon footprint for artificial trees made in and shipped from the country — versus real trees, which, as you may know, are made here. When I called Hugh Whaley at the National Christmas Tree Association to chat with him about real versus fake trees (as you might have guessed, Whaley is staunchly anti-fake-tree), I told him about one of Balsam Hill’s $4,000 models. He was aghast. “I can’t imagine or fathom someone spending that much money for a tree,” said Whaley. (Same.)

I think despite artificial-tree advancements, I will continue risking the spiders. But to each their own.