She hung in for eight years, the old fake fir, and brightened many houses. From my first Florida home in 2011, through several more reindeer stops, to a final chimney landing at the Happier Yellow House, the artificial Christmas tree lit up my homes for the holidays, year after year.
Then, last year, her lights went out.
I briefly considered having her lights restrung, but figured I’d gotten my money’s worth. The seven-and-a-half-foot tree originally cost $400, divided by eight that averages to $50 a year, a good investment considering the average live tree sells for $78, says the National Christmas Tree Association.
“It’s time,” I said to my husband.
“Is it worth getting a new one?” he wanted to know. It’s a standard question around here.
“Yes, in tree-light technology alone,” I said. Any man who has ever put lights on a Christmas tree knows the value of that.
I remembered the quantum leap forward that this tree had been over the fake fir that preceded her. The prior tree I also had for seven or eight years, and might still have today had my former husband not unceremoniously tossed it in a trash bin, a regrettable event I won’t even mention. That tree had color-coded tiers of branches that had to be inserted into brackets in the trunk, and was not pre-lit.
Christmas tree lights are the number one cause of divorce. Case in point.
Anyway, the sequel to the dumped tree, was a pre-lit (cue the angel chorus) Fraser Fir from Balsam Hill, the brand my designer friends recommended, and I could see why. Its realistic-looking branches unfolded like Mary Poppins’s umbrella, and stacked in three easy sections faster than you could say Falalalala.
To find out what further improvements had happened in the eight intervening years, I called Balsam Hill headquarters in Redland City, California.
“Consumers are leaning toward more organic-looking, asymmetrical trees,” said Mac Harman, who founded Balsam Brands in 2006. “For years consumers have wanted full, perfectly shaped trees, with no gaps, but trees don’t grow that way.”
Harman travels the world snipping tree branches and snapping tree photos to bring back to mimic, he tells me.
While the company still sells plenty of full, symmetrical trees, the trend is toward “trees that have arms shooting off unevenly, and are not as dense,” Harman said. They leave more room for ornaments and show some trunk, which has long been a no-no.”
Improvements in tree lighting is driving the second big trend. Just as in our homes, LED lights are changing how we light our Christmas trees. They are replacing incandescent lights, which are glass, burn hot, break easily and can trip fires. Encased in hard plastic, LED lights stay cool, are safer, use less energy and last for years, possibly decades. Also, if one bulb goes down, it doesn’t take the whole strand with it.
Today’s trees also have bulbs that change color, so the same bulb can switch from white to multiple colors and even pulsate to your favorite Christmas song. Earlier models let you display white or colored lights, but you had to have two strands to make the switch.
Techy types can also get tree lights they can control with an app. Twinkly lets you change the light color and pattern with a swipe.
While I don’t care about creating a light show, what I do love is the new core-technology that allows tree sections to light up as you connect them. No more fishing around for plugs, or building light-strand trains.
As I got ready to find my next fake fir, an asymmetrical model pre-lit with clear LEDs, I looked to Harman and other experts for top tree picking tips:
First the facts. A 2018 survey of U.S. households conducted by Nielsen for the American Christmas Tree Association found the following:
77% of households celebrate the holiday season with a Christmas tree.
82% of trees on display in homes — not counting banks, stores, churches, office buildings or other commercial locations — are artificial. Consumers who buy the other 18% don’t mind having a tree that scratches the car roof, needs water, drops needles, gets sap on the rug, is not adjustable, and dies in four weeks.
16% of homes display more than one tree.
90% of artificial trees sold are pre-lit. The 10% who didn’t buy a pre-lit tree are in counseling.
8 years is how long owners keep an artificial tree on average before giving it up. If well cared for, an artificial tree can last 20 years, said Harman.
Reality check. Even inexpensive trees look real from across the room. Better trees look more realistic up close. Needles should look distinctly separate, should not have flat-clipped tops, or webbed feet. More and varied branch “tips” are also signs of a better tree. Less expensive trees have all the same tips.
The cost. Artificial trees range from $40 at a low-end retailer to $4,000 at the very upper end. Harman, whose trees are on the high side, said most of his sell in the $399 to $699 range.
A proper spine. The least expensive trunk is a green pole. Next up and most common is a green pole wrapped with garland. Next most realistic is a rubber-coated textured trunk, made to resemble real bark. This is important if the trunk is designed to be visible. In a full tree, if you fluff the branches right, you don’t see the trunk.
Environmental impact. A recent sustainability study found that an artificial tree reused for at least five years is better for the environment than a real tree.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of five home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home — What to Save, What to Let Go and the just-released — Downsizing the Blended Home — When Two Households Become One (Sterling Publishing, Dec. 2019). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.