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When it comes to Christmas trees, are you real or fake?

| Saturday, Dec. 23, 2006

The battle between live and artificial Christmas trees blazes on like the fiery red glow of Rudolph's nose, yet argument over which tree fits holiday spirits best still leaves Santa's sleigh in neutral.

"The right tree is one that's shaped to look Christmasy looking," says Patricia Young, 68, of Columbiana, Ohio, in the area shopping at the Mall in Robinson. "I've always had a real (tree) to give that aroma. You don't get it from other trees."

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 35 million Americans woke up on Christmas morning to the scent of real pine in 2005.

"It's older people who are reluctant to buy artificial trees," says Sarah Windstein, an artificial tree salesperson at Meder's Nursery and Garden Center in South Hills. "Artificial trees have no mess, last year after year and if you want the pine smell, buy an artificial tree and get a can of pine spray from your local K-Mart for 99 cents."

Windstein, 26, made the switch to a real tree last Christmas just to "see what all the fuss was about."

"It was such a pain," says Windstein. "Every day I had to vacuum the needles and change the water. Then the whole dragging it to the curb thing."

Christmas spirit has long been attributed by Hollywood, the media and many Americans to the presence of real Christmas trees, but in 2002, 48 percent of American homes displayed artificial trees as opposed to the 21 percent who trimmed real trees, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Although Patricia Young is among those still decking their halls with real pine, she revels at the idea of a Christmas without daily vacuuming.

"And it's a family tradition going out to pick the tree," Young says. "Part of it is freezing, your hands are so cold, but you just have to get that right tree."

And even then, things can go wrong. She recalls a Christmas when her now-grown daughters picked a tree and loaded it into the car, but when they arrived home they found the trunk was empty.

"You could just see the expression on their faces, like 'there's not going to be a Christmas,' " Young says. "Luckily, when we were driving back, we found it on the train tracks. It must have fallen out when we crossed."

According to Martin Hozak, who has grown Christmas trees on his family's McDonald farm all of his life, tradition plays a major role in the battle between real and artificial trees each year.

"We have third- and fourth-generation families who have been coming to get their trees from us since the '60s," Hozak says. "It's a tradition to pile in the car, get dirty and freezing cold to get that perfect tree."

More than a 1,000 Hozak Christmas trees bring yuletide bliss each year, from the pine trees that they grow to the more-lush fir and spruce trees.

For many, the time spent picking out the live tree, watering it and vacuuming needles every day does not compare to the storage hassle of an artificial tree.

For Jennifer Zisko, a registered nurse at UPMC Presbyterian, and her husband of three years, finding the right tree is a little more complicated this year.

"(My husband) is a real nature person, he always wants a rooted tree so we can plant it in our yard after Christmas," Zisko says. But as she's pregnant, "the tree situation is up in the air right now."

Zisko fears the duty of moving the 250-pound rooted Christmas tree will be a problem for her husband -- again.

"Last year, I was pregnant, too, and he hurt his back very badly taking the tree out," Zisko says. "Plus, we're moving this year, and usually we plant the tree outside, but we don't want to do that. So we'll see what happens."

Price check

Artificial trees are becoming more realistic every year. Gone are the days of aluminum Christmas trees, and trees that look like a third-grade arts- and-crafts project.

"We have 12 foot trees that range from $700 to $1,000, and look like we just brought them in from outside," says Sarah Windstein, a salesperson at Meder's Nursery and Garden Center in Pleasant Hills. "Our trees are made to last 15 to 20 years, but you have to spend money buying a real tree every year."

Christmas tree farmer Martin Hozak, of McDonald, points out that not only do real trees add to the holiday spirit through tradition and aroma, his real trees cost between $35 and $45.

If you buy the most expensive tree from Hozak Farms every year for the expected 20 years of the life of an artificial tree you will spend $900 which leaves $100 that can be spent on more eggnog and tinsel for decorating.

Overall, the pricing for the two types of trees equals out over time. But for many, the decision has little to do with the price.

'Tis the season for sneezin'

For many, Christmas is a time to pull out the box of old ornaments and set it next to the box of facial tissues, due to holiday allergies caused by Christmas trees.

Dr. Richard Green, an allergist in the Allergy and Asthma Associates Group, Downtown, says allergic reactions to pine trees are not caused by the odor of the tree, but the mold that grows on the needles and under the bark.

"Five to 10 percent of people affected by allergies are allergic to trees," Green says. "But some people have the congestion, wheezing and sneezing but never connect it to the tree."

Green offers a few sure-fire ways to keep your Christmas sneeze-free this year:

  • Get rid of the real tree and buy an artificial one. The best way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid the cause.

  • Use an over-the-counter antihistamine to reduce discomfort cause by tree allergens.

  • If a live tree is crucial to your holiday festivities, thoroughly wash the tree with soap and water before bringing it into your home to remove any mold that has already grown.

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