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The Flip Flops Are Hung By The Chimney With Care
updated: Nov 26, 2011, 9:45 AM

By Billy Goodnick

As the end of 2011 nears, I've been checking off all the significant dates on my calendar. I just survived National Undo the Top Button of Your Slacks For One More Bite of Turkey Day. But I sat out Black Wear A Football Helmet To Shop for Deals At Midnight Friday.

On the heels of these revered holidays comes the ever-perplexing fortnight known at our house as Are We Gonna Get a Christmas Tree This Year? Let's face it, Santa Barbara isn't exactly the land of winter holiday icons. Segways are more practical than one horse open sleighs, LEDs take the place of icicles on our eaves, and there are only so many tiny surprises you can conceal in a flip flop.

Last night Lin and I discussed going treeless for the first time since our now-21- year-old son, Benjamin Cosmo, was born. We've outgrown needing a spot for Santa to leave the 12,347-piece Wuthering Heights-themed Lego set our boy once coveted. Even better, there'll be no rearranging of furniture, and no worries about Biff the Wonder Spaniel lapping sappy water from the tree stand.

If you're certain about having a Christmas tree this year and want to make the most environmentally enlightened decision, you've probably wondered what's the greenest way to go. If you're on the fence, let me lay out a few options to consider.

Scrooge It: The No-Tree Option: First off, no one says you have to have a tree to enjoy the holidays. They're a throwback to the pagan winter solstice when trees that stayed green through the cold, snowy winters were revered (this was in the days before Legos). You can still share good tidings, sing Grandma Got Run Over By Reindeer, and watch Sugar Plum Fairies prance ‘til Guy Lombardo plays Auld Lang Syne. There's nothing greener than just skipping the whole shebang.

Festoon Your Fir: Some folks are content wrapping lights around a tree in their yard, balancing an angel on the tippy top, and calling it done. Throw in a string of low-wattage LEDs to add sparkle. However, this approach raises the problem of where to put the gifts. You could still leave them under the tree, provided you surround it with a chain link fence and encase the presents in stainless steel to keep the neighborhood pets and kids at bay.

Pot Your Pine: There's a strong argument for buying a living tree, planting it in a patio pot, then bringing it in the house for a few weeks. I worked in retail nurseries for years and that approach meant big sales, consisting of a fragrant conifer, big container, water-tight saucer to keep the floor dry, and bags of potting soil. In my experience, though, most trees look pretty pathetic after a year or two braving the elements. First of all, the species that pass for Christmas trees don't exactly thrive in SoCal. Conifers like firs, pines, and spruces are from cold, moist climates and need just the right spot and lots of supplemental care to make it through the year.

They require vigilant snipping to maintain they're iconic shape and frequent rotation to assure balanced exposure to the sun. Most folk's enthusiasm and rigor fade quickly. Add the possibility that any number of mollusks, insects, arachnids, and zombie gnomes might take up residence in the branches and soil, and you might want to reconsider.

My Take On Fake: The good news about artificial trees is they don't require ending the life of a carbon-based life form. (Well, at least not recently--they're made from polyvinyl chloride [PVC] which comes from crude oil, so although the statute of limitation for murder has likely expired, there's a good chance that a stegosaurus or two gave their all for your tree.)

The overwhelming bad news is that manufacturing PVC entails one of the most environmentally destructive processes on the planet, leaving behind a wake of carcinogens; worse, the stuff never decomposes. Eighty-five percent of them come from China where worker safety and environmental protection is stuck in the Stone Age, then they're shipped overseas on fossil fuel-farting cargo ships and trucked cross-country. More troubling still, many manufacturers use lead to make the "needles" supple. California's Prop 65 requires that the trees carry warning labels, due to the potential for lead poisoning. Imagine keeping your kids from touching the tree. Yeah, right.

Oregon Chainsaw Massacre: Most of what we find in Christmas tree lots have spent their useful lives in the Pacific Northwest, grown on small-scale, family-owned, environmentally respectful farms. I picked up that factoid from Michael Bondi, an Oregon State University Forestry and Extension Agent who told me, "There's no degree in Christmas-tree-ology, but if there were one, I'd have it. Many of the growers I work with are mom and pop operations, living on the same land where the trees are grown," Bondi said, "so they tend to be good stewards of the environment."

While waiting for their inevitable demise, these trees provide habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and four-legged wildlife, all the while sucking up carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. They're low impact, according to Greenpeace, whose website states, "Real trees are carbon neutral, absorbing as much carbon dioxide…as they will emit when burnt or left to decompose."

There's a down side to everything: To get to our living rooms, trees are shipped via truck, meaning a carbon footprint that is cause for concern. I was hoping to solve that problem by directing SB locals to the choose-and-cut tree farm on Patterson Avenue. Alas, when I cruised by earlier this week, all that's left is open space and bare dirt. The closest I could find was G.P. Ranch in Los Alamos (805.344.4605), and Hidden Springs, in Atascadero. Or check this website for others if you ain't from around here.

If you're going the non-local cut tree route, there are plenty of choices. I'm a sucker for supporting non-profits like the Boy Scouts or church groups. If not, you can still keep your money in the local economy by shopping at Big Wave Dave near La Cumbre Plaza (just cuz the name's so cool), Anthony's (55 years in the biz) at Earl Warren Showground, or Lane Farm at Hollister and Walnut in Goleta.

And when the holiday has passed and you've tired of finding escaped needles in your toothbrush, it's time for conscientiously disposing of your now-brown evergreen. If you own a brush chipper, you can reenact that disturbing scene from the movie Fargo then spread the remains in your garden to benefit the soil. Or--after you've stripped the ornaments, lights, stand, and water dish--visit LessIsMore.org (SB County Solid Waste Division) for disposal options, including curbside pick-up or drop-off at the transfer station. These nice folks will grind the tree and recycle it back into the community as mulch for residential and public gardens.

I don't think I'll miss having a tree taking up space in the house this season, but I will miss the aroma of a conifer forest pervading the air. Guess I'll have to visit the car wash and pick up a case of air fresheners.

So which way are you going? Leave a comment and let's get the conversation started.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 SPLASH agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-26 05:09 PM

Getting and maintaining the cut tree was a source of great familial discord. Eventually, I bought the best looking artificial tree I could find (I hadn't considered all of the issues that Billy has carefully laid out here). So now, family and friends who are here for Thanksgiving set it up while waiting for the turkey. We decorate it between dinner and dessert. The decorations and the memories they hold reinforce good family feelings (the food and wine helps too!). We are ready for the holiday season.
Whatever the ecological debt was, we have gotten eight years out of it so far.


 COMMENT 235996P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-27 07:09 AM

Good assessment Billy. One downside of the live tree option you didn't consider is what happens in the households of people with allergies. You don't even have to be allergic to conifers - live trees can be dusty and carry molds too. If you crank the heater up any time while the tree is in the house, you could find yourself gasping for breath.

So the dilemma remains in our household. We can pass the Claritin and make the best of it, get a fake tree and hope it lasts many years or skip the whole scene. We so far are in "avoid the whole discussion" phase of "Should We Get a Tree This Year" season.


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-27 08:25 AM

When the Americans locating here were disappointed about no Xmas trees a minister, preaching on a Sunday (1854), said the answer was in their barns. He suggested bringing in the ladder and putting branches of CA holly berries on it, a place to put the presents around. It was a symbal of Jacob's Ladder from the bible, when Jacob dreamed of angels descending from heaven on a ladder. My son-in-law made a rustic ladder from eucalyptus sapplings (similar to the "Southwest ladders" sold now), strapped together w/ leather strips, I tied a couple pine boughs on w/big red bows. For 2 yrs I've put my saddle on a stand and draped cowboy lights on it, chilie peppers, boots and cactus. A few times I made a "bouquet" of driftwood branches from the beach, in a gardening can; w/tiny white lights and a few red balls, it made a perfect "focal point". Fun to be creative, less mess.


 BECKY agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-27 09:33 AM

I used to go see Mr. Dismuke, on West Camino Cielo, who had the most magical Christmas tree farm... Then I tried the Dos Pueblos Canyon tree farm, and the Noel (Patterson) tree farm. All are no more. Then I got married to a guy who owned an artificial tree. I miss the fun of the search for the right tree, and the smell, but appreciate the 20+ years of a smaller tree that looks good and doesn't need attention. Many years we skip the tree (because our place is small), and just go with fake pine garlands (reused year to year, like the tree) draped over the huge mirror in the living room, and decorate them as if they were the tree. I've adapted.

My sister's manger was made by me from Goleta beach driftwood. My bro-in-law was born here, and though they now live on the east coast, the Goleta driftwood manager ties them to this home and their Goleta family members.


 COMMENT 236189 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-28 08:07 AM

We've had our fake tree for so long that she now sheds needles like the real deal. How does that happen? Depending on our Grinchiness each season, we sometimes put her up and sometimes not.

For that 'real' smell, go get a wreath or garland made of 'real' conifer.


 COMMENT 243686P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-26 10:08 AM

I cut branch tips from my coast redwoods and my neighbor's Incense Cedars to make garland and wreaths--that way I can extend the holiday scents into the new year.

For the first time since my hubby died in 2009, I got a cut noble fir and put it up myself. Hardest part was finding the drill bit to rebore the hole for the stand; take that back--the hardest part was finding the 1/2" drill big enough to fit the bit--he bought it just to do this yearly chore for me. It made me cry, but what the heck, I'm used to that by now. Felt Good to "do" the tree all by myself.


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