I just lost the final battle of a struggle that began 43 years ago. It’s about how we decorate for Christmas. For me, Christmas meant a fresh-cut pine, decorated with large bulbs, tinsel and frosted gingerbread men. My wife had a different vision of a Christmas tree: tiny lights, garland and no gingerbread men.

But regardless of how it was decorated, the tree had to be real. We started out buying Christmas trees from the lot that springs up each December next to Portillo’s. I admire this crew living in a trailer for weeks until their last tree is sold.

We have also visited tree farms to cut down our own. Frostbite sets in as we trudge through the snow looking for the perfect tree. It has to have a straight trunk, no bare spots and a pointy top for placing the star. Once we saved money by cutting down a tree in my brother-in-law’s backyard. I was careful to avoid this activity, which involved my daughter lying in the snow and sawing away at the trunk.

After that, we bought trees from big-box stores. I didn’t care where we bought the tree, or how we decorated it. I was just happy to breathe that pure aroma of pine. I also saw the tree as a huge humidifier. I may not know how to keep a house plant alive but I’m good at keeping a dead tree hydrated.

After we brought a tree home, my wife expertly hung the tiny lights, garland and sentimental ornaments. After the star was finally stuck on top, we celebrated with a cocoa party: candles, Christmas music and Frango mint hot chocolate.

This peaceful scene has been disturbed in recent years by rumblings about buying an artificial tree. It would save us money and be much less work. It would be fully lighted and decorated and we could use it year after year.

This sounded practical but I stubbornly refused to consider a fake tree. Last year, our Christmas struggle finally reached a climax. When we couldn’t agree on fake, or real, we spent the first Christmas of our lives without a tree. This year, my wife forged ahead and bought a fake tree at a big-box store for $50.

If I had only done my homework, I could have prevented this purchase. According to The National Wildlife Foundation, real trees are better for the environment. That’s because the tree farms grow between 350-500 million trees but only harvest 30 million. The remaining trees create a forest habitat for wildlife. Plus, buying trees from neighborhood lots supports our local economy.

Meanwhile, 90% of the soulless sterile fake trees are manufactured in China. They are made from metal and plastic and cannot be recycled. Real Christmas trees are easy to recycle. We simply place them on the parkway and Public Works picks them up and uses their wood chipper to turn them into mulch.

Real trees do have some drawbacks, though. They aren’t as sturdy as fake trees. It’s disheartening to wake up and find the Christmas tree on the floor. The lights and ornaments are in disarray and there is water everywhere. Real trees are also fire hazards and many rental properties don’t permit them.

But they are part of a hallowed tradition that dates back to 1419 in Germany. They give us a chance to express our primitive instincts. What could be more medieval than placing a dead tree in our living rooms? 

And what could be more savage than snatching a gingerbread man from a branch anytime we’re hungry for a snack?

Guess I have to get used to being “civilized.”

John Rice grew up in Oak Park, lives in Forest Park, and writes a weekly column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.

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