Piney-sweet smell, or perfect branches every year? See how the West is changing the way we make that decision

Bruce Barcott and Michelle Lau

When I was a child, my family adhered to a strict policy when it came to Christmas trees: We never drew from the same well twice. One year, we rolled up to the White Front parking lot in Everett, Washington, where my dad haggled with the schnapps-warmed proprietor over the price of a 6-foot fir. In a better winter, we tramped into an Alaskan forest, axe in Father’s hand. During our California years, my sister and I pitched in to assemble our wire-and-plastic tree, working it like a big Tinkertoy set.

The ease with which this long-dead lumber is recalled speaks to its power. Holidays come and go, but Christmas trees stand in memory’s warehouse forever. Now, with two kids of our own, my family is all about the adventure of finding the perfect real tree. We’ve cut our own at a farm and carted it by boat and ferry from the San Juan Islands to our home in Seattle.

A few years ago, we lived for a year in a mountaintop house in Colorado. The owners encouraged us to cut a blue spruce from the backyard, so we found a 12-foot whopper. It took us all afternoon to cut it, haul it, and brace it in a stand. We dressed it in lights and sat and gazed at it, a drinking, breathing, living piece of forest standing there as if it had walked its rootsy feet through the back door and taken up a cozy spot next to the couch. “That’s a pretty good tree,” said our son, Willie. And we all agreed.

But not everyone does. My mother, she’s out of the live Christmas tree game. A few years ago, she invested in an expensive artificial tree. “I can put it up early and leave it undecorated, or wait until the last week,” she tells me. “It’s not easy to put together, so we store the whole tree under plastic in the basement. That’s our rule: We do not take it apart.”

For the everlasting nature of the Christmas tree, it’s changing rapidly. More than 50 percent of people in the West display artificial trees, while just 26 percent buy a live one. (In other regions, the contrast is even greater.) The West grows the most trees but also helped spawn the artificial tree revolution. Still, one thing remains the same: The choice of tree is an emotional decision. Do you seek robust A-line perfection, or does a forlorn Charlie Brown pine tug at your heart? It’s tough because it’s not just a tree.

Get the scoop on the people responsible for bringing you fresh vs. fake trees each holiday season, plus some pointers on how to choose the perfect tree for you.