Last night we watched a jewel of the TV Christmas show crown, 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, with its search for the meaning of Christmas amidst commercialized children (some gleefully, some reluctantly so) and innocence lost, most pointedly symbolized by a garish Christmas tree lot filled with neon-colored aluminum trees, stiffly reflecting both the searchlight glare and soulless artificiality of Christmas in mid-20th century America.
Charlie Brown — on mission get a tree to decorate the set of the Christmas pageant he is directing, and despite dire warnings to not screw up — is drawn in spite of himself to a kindred spirit, an unimpressive lonely little natural tree pining away in the shadows of its overwrought metallic rivals.
Charlie and his tree meet with an initial response of disgust and rejection, but after Linus gives his legendary Biblical speech on the meaning of Christmas as derived straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, the chastened kids rally round the sorry sapling, performing a transformative miracle worthy of the season.
The flamboyantly artificial aluminum trees of the ’50s and ’60s fell out of favor — no doubt at least in part to the shame heaped upon them in the Charlie Brown special — as authenticity resumed preeminence over the next couple of decades, but now the tide has turned once again, this time in favor of the convenience and safety of quite real-looking artificial trees, causing the National Christmas Tree Association to howl foul.
In 1990, 35.4 million households featured real trees and 36.3 million displayed artificial trees, according to the NCTA, but by 2000, the split was 32 million live and 50.6 million artificial. And since 2000 sales of natural trees have dropped even more sharply, from 27.8 million in 2001 to 23.4 million last year. Since 2000, annual artificial tree sales have risen from 7.3 million to 9.6 million.
With yesterday’s “Fuller Brush” and aluminum looks long out of fashion, today’s inorganics are made from petrochemicals in factories in China and elsewhere in Asia. “The technology in artificial trees has really come a long way. It’s really hard to tell if it is artificial without touching it,” Bob Jacobson from Atlanta-based Home Depot, told the AP.
Today’s fakes come with hinged branches that no longer need to be assembled one by one, and many come with holiday lights built in, eliminating that tangled nightmare. Internet artificial tree supplier Tree Classics offers 50 varieties of trees ranging in size from 4 1/2 feet to 40 feet, and in price from $69.95 to $11,995. The most expensive is a pre-lit 30-foot emerald monster with 21,100 clear or multicolor lights and 64,800 tips (“Commercial grade lighting, professionally entwined amidst the lush, dense foliage, guarantees continuity from top to bottom. Twist proof bulbs with locking sockets provide unparalleled reliability. Dazzling illumination, manufactured to endure season after season use, is backed by our exclusive 5 year warranty”).
But as a particularly astute natural tree fan from Maine wrote, “Artificial trees are like breast implants. They look funny, they don’t feel right and why would you consider them when the real thing is readily available and works just fine?”
Yes, it takes time and effort to search out, locate, agree upon, purchase, haul, erect and decorate a real tree, which will only last a month at best before casting its miniature spears to the four corners of your home, but the time and effort spent is precious family ritual; and for the tree to work as a symbol of life, nature, and man’s oneness with other living things, it’s kind of important for the symbol to actually be ALIVE, or at least formerly alive, or whatever a tree is after it has been decapitated, er, derootitated. An artificial tree is a symbol of a symbol and that’s a little too symbolic for me in these attenuated times.
I like the fact that the tree won’t look the same by New Year’s Day as it did when we set it up last weekend, that it is an hourglass graphically displaying the progress of the finite holiday season. I like the fact that real Christmas trees aren’t perfect, are individuals with individual flaws and character. And I love the smell, evergreen until it’s gone, just like Christmas.