It wouldn't be Christmas without a tree. It is the ultimate symbol of the Christmas holidays and putting one up in the home is a ritual that signals the start of the festive period. Here in Italy, this traditionally happens on 8 December, which is Immaculate Conception Day. Before presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve or 25 December, they are colourfully wrapped and placed under the tree.
So should you have a real or artificial Christmas tree? It's a question of personal taste, practicality and ethics, to which there is no single answer. On the one hand, buying a living Christmas tree might seem like a waste, especially if you use it once and then discard it, but we will reveal how you can avoid this eventuality. On the other hand, artificial Christmas trees—which are typically made of PVC, polyethylene or other plastics—have a high environmental impact over the course of their life cycle, but can be reused year after year.
That said, we believe that everyone should make an informed purchase according to their needs. For those who love the unmistakable fragrance of a real Christmas fir tree and the inimitable magic that it exudes in the home, today we will find out how to select one, how to take care of it so that it survives indoors, and what to do with it once the festivities are over.
The real Christmas tree: how to select one and take care of it
You can buy a real Christmas tree in a store or online: the important thing is that it comes from a regulated tree farm where the plants are grown specifically for the purpose, and carries a certification label. That way you can be sure that your Christmas fir tree has not been stolen from woodland.
The most widespread and inexpensive species of real Christmas trees is the Norway spruce. Alternative varieties include the silver fir, Nordmann fir, Colorado fir, Douglas fir and Serbian spruce. Instead of an evergreen fir, you can decorate other types of evergreen trees or shrubs, such as holly or juniper (we'll tell you why later).
Choose a Christmas tree with the roots balled in a bag or pot, rather than bare-root plants or rootless specimens, where the roots have been cut off at the base of the trunk. Although the latter are cheap, they lose their needles quickly and, after Epiphany on 6 January when you take them down, they are destined for the recycling centre — these literally are disposable Christmas trees.
Before buying your Christmas tree, check that the room you want to keep it in is adequately sized: the ceiling should be high enough and the overall effect should look in proportion. It is better not to keep the plant indoors longer than necessary: ideally 2 weeks or less. Therefore, we advise you to buy your fir tree just before you intend to decorate it. First leave it for a few days to acclimatise in an unheated environment, such as a garage, to minimise the shock of the transition from outdoors to indoors (and vice versa at the end of the holiday).
How to choose your Christmas fir? A living Christmas tree definitely doesn’t have the inauthentically perfect appearance of an artificial tree. A beautiful plant is first and foremost a healthy plant, with an even colour, a straight trunk and intact bark, as well as symmetrical, uniformly dense foliage, without dead or broken branches. It is normal for a few needles to fall out, but there shouldn't be too many. Finally, there should be no insects, parasites, moss, lichens and so on.
How should you care for your Christmas fir once it's in your house or flat? Its most fearsome enemies are heat and dry air, so once you have placed it in a pot without breaking the root ball:
Leave it in a bright, cool place away from drafts—pay attention to doors and windows—and far from heat sources such as radiators, fireplaces and the like. If you have underfloor heating, keep the pot raised off the ground.
Water it regularly to keep the soil moist (but not soggy) — applying mulch over the pot also helps.
As long as you haven't wrapped the Christmas tree with electric lights, you can spray the branches with water so that it sheds fewer needles.
Avoid heavy decorations and don’t cover the branches in artificial snow, glitter or coloured spray paint.
Use LED decorative lights, which don’t overheat.
What to do with a real Christmas tree after the holiday
After the Epiphany you can move your real Christmas tree outside, including to the patio, or transplant it in the garden. Of course, this can only be done if it has roots and they are in good condition. Just be aware that it is only possible to plant a Christmas tree if the climate and space conditions are right. For example, the Norway spruce, which is the most popular variety of Christmas fir, is native to mountains and therefore favours a wet, cool environment. Furthermore, it thrives in open ground, soaring up to several tens of metres high. Precisely for this reason, it is sometimes better to choose alternatives to evergreen firs, as we said before.
On the other hand, they grow more slowly in pots. Therefore every spring, repot your fir in a bigger container: you can use it as a Christmas tree for a couple of years, as long as its size and weight remain easily manageable.
To transplant your Christmas fir we advise you wait until autumn, which is the best season for planting trees and shrubs of all kinds. After choosing the ideal spot in your garden, tidy the area with a brushcutter, dig a hole and transplant the tree into it.
Whether it is potted or planted in the garden, maintenance of your Christmas fir should be limited to removing diseased, dead or broken branches, and keeping the canopy in shape. The same goes for all conifers, as well as evergreens in general.
If the branches are thin, you can use manual pruning tools, such as pruning shears and loppers, otherwise it is better to use a chainsaw and a telescopic pruner. You can then use a blower to clear your lawn of fir needles and smaller pruning waste. You will find detailed instructions on how to do this in our article on pruning Christmas trees.
If you can’t plant your Christmas fir in the garden, give it to someone who can plant it in theirs. Alternatively, through the retailer you bought it from, the local council or waste management company, or a public organisation, you can donate it to a worthy cause such as tree planting or making wooden objects. Otherwise you can take it to the recycling centre to be repurposed into compost.
Failing that, you could chop it up and use it for firewood; the same applies if you bought a rootless tree. Here’s how to cut your own firewood and then season it.