How to Pick the Perfect Christmas Tree

When I was growing up I had a friend whose family used to put up an artificial aluminum Christmas tree every year; pink.

I remember one particular Christmas that same family had an ornament of a smiling Elvis Presley hanging on their pink tree — just above the manger scene they had neatly tucked under it. I know.

Those of you counting at home could reasonably argue that their version of the Nativity actually had four kings instead of three. But I digress.

Frankly, pink artificial aluminum Christmas trees make me cringe — or artificial trees of any other material or color. (Even if they’re forest-green.) Sorry.

Christmas Trees Are Big Business

When it comes to the holiday season I demand a fresh-cut natural Christmas tree in my family room.

Apparently, a lot of people feel the same way. As recently as 2009, over 28 million commercial Christmas trees were sold in the US resulting in $1.2 billion in revenue.

Now, if you’re like me, you’ll probably end up buying your tree pre-cut from a big-box home improvement center or a Christmas tree lot.

But if you’re really fortunate, you live close to a farm that grows Christmas trees and cuts them on the spot.

When I was growing up my family used to go to a commercial Christmas tree farm every year and it was one of the highlights of the season for me.

Commercial Christmas tree prices depend on several variables including the type of tree. For example, where I live, noble firs are typically more expensive than the Douglas variety.

Price also depends on tree height, and whether or not you want it flocked so it looks like it has a dusting of fresh snow on it.

Get too carried away and you can easily spend well over $100.

Picking the Perfect Tree

Picking the perfect Christmas tree is very similar to finding the perfect Christmas gift — they both require effort.

I know what you’re thinking: “So, Len, just how hard is it?”

Actually, it’s as easy as 1-2-3. In fact, picking a Christmas tree is so easy, even good ol’ Charlie Brown can do it. Well … assuming he follows these three steps:

Step 1. Know how much tree you can get BEFORE you leave the house.

Size matters. As a kid, I remember the year my family brought home this big beautiful tree only to find out, after hosing it down and putting it in the Christmas tree stand, that it was just too tall for our living room. Not only did my dad buy more tree than he had to but, sadly, he also had to butcher it before it would finally fit in our house.

The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) recommends that you measure the height and width of the space where you plan on putting your tree. As a guideline, they also say that your allocated width should be 80 percent of the height. Sure, your foyer’s cathedral ceiling may easily accommodate a ten-foot tree, but if it doesn’t have eight feet available horizontally as well, then you’ll need to scale back your ambitions and find a shorter tree.

Step 2. Determine the species that best meets your needs.

When it comes to selecting the perfect Christmas tree, the secret is in identifying your own personal preferences regarding such things as the tree’s color and fragrance, and the softness of the needles. If you plan on having your tree for several weeks you’ll also need to make sure you purchase a tree variety that tends to hold its needles over a long period of time once it’s harvested.

Those who are serious about decorating their tree should also consider how well a particular variety is able to accommodate ornaments. For example, some tree varieties have more space between branches. If you have heavy ornaments, you’ll also want to ensure you get a tree with stiffer branches.

Once you figure out which tree best meets your needs, then look for a farm or retailer that carries the Christmas tree species you’re looking for.

Personally, I prefer Douglas firs; I love the long needles and I think they smell great. The Honeybee happens to be a big fan of Noble firs. (Guess what kind of tree we get every year.)

While you’re struggling with that little pop quiz, here’s a chart that summarizes the traits of some of the most popular Christmas tree varieties:


Step 3. Make sure you buy a fresh tree.

Of course, when you buy your tree at a Christmas tree farm you know you are getting the freshest tree you possibly can. However, a lot of people don’t have that luxury. The National Christmas Tree Association provides these helpful tips for folks who will be buying Christmas trees from a retail lot:

  • Be sure to buy your trees from a retail lot that is well-lit and stores their trees in a shaded area.
  • To ensure maximum freshness, ask the Christmas tree retailer when the trees were delivered.
  • Perform a freshness test. If the tree is a fir: fresh green fir needles will break crisply — like a fresh carrot. However, if the tree is a pine the opposite is true. That is, fresh green pine needles will NOT break. Got that?
  • Be on the lookout for other signs of an old tree including: a musty odor, wrinkled bark, discoloration, and excessive needle loss.
  • When in doubt about the freshness of a tree, pick another one. If you have to, find another retailer.

In Summary

See? Picking the perfect Christmas tree isn’t that difficult at all! In fact, it’s so simple even I can do it.

And if you’re still doubting yourself, stop. After all, the worst real Christmas tree will always be better than a pink aluminum one.

Photo Credit: Wolf Savard

(This is an updated article that was originally posted on November 22, 2010)


  1. 1

    Olivia says

    We too love the natural tree, but last year after getting our usual heavily discounted last minute greenery and still spending more than we could afford, we decided to scope out an artificial tree at yard sales. Well I found a beauty, one that looks almost real, pine cones and everything, prestrung with lights for only $15. I wanted DH to see it before we dragged it home (besides it was too heavy for me) and took the young couple’s number. When we called, the fellow said some of the lights no longer worked so we could have it for free. FREE! Free is good. I’ll just take an exacto knife to the plastic rings holding the lights and string our own. We’ll keep your helpful chart anyway for when we’re a bit more flush.

  2. 2


    We are all about the fake tree. Too much work for a real one! We bought a nice one that everyone thinks is real bout four years ago, and it’s served us well. In the long run, we’ll save since we don’t have to buy a new tree each year. :)

  3. 3


    Len, I bought our tree a few years back (of course it’s a plastic). We picked one out a couple days after New Year’s and saved abou 80%! That’s absolutely the best the time to buy if you’re an obsessive planner like me.

  4. 4


    I am allergic to pine trees, so it is artificial all the way for me. It is also probably one of our best investments! We bought it the first year we were married, which was 20 years ago. We paid $139 for it, and it still looks great. (Not sure why it came with a 10 year warranty. Does a tree just self-combust after a certain amount of time?)

    I have to say, I am glad I don’t have to worry about watering a tree or stepping on spiky pine needles. I know some people love a real tree, but since it isn’t a possibility for me, I just focus on all the bad parts of a real tree!

  5. 5


    Really? Four people write in and you all have FAKE trees??? Good grief! LOL :-)

    @Olivia: Okay, free is good! Just please don’t tell me you have any Elvis ornaments. 😉
    @Miranda: I think you mean everybody “used to think” your tree is real. LOL
    @Coach: Great advice! Um, maybe I can get the same deal in January for a real tree! Wait…
    @Everyday: What about fir trees, or spruce? Anyway, I’m glad you got your money’s worth from your fake tree. It’s not pink, is it? 😉

  6. 6

    Bella says

    I used to have an aunt who had an artificial pink tree she would put out every year for Christmas. It was hideous!

  7. 7


    Many of your too tall, too wide examples remind me of the National Lampoon movie Christmas Vacation when Chevy Chase drags his family out to cut down their own Christmas tree only to get home and find out it’s WAY too large for their house!

    However, I haven’t purchased a tree in years. I know, I know…Bah Humbug! Right? It just doesn’t make sense picking out a tree, setting it up, having to watch it die before my very eyes and then removing it only to sweep up millions of pine needles where it once sat. I guess if I had kids, I would think differently. Until then, no tree.

  8. 8


    Sorry Len, I’m asthmatic and my husband hates cleaning up pine needles, so we still use the 5 foot fake tree that my mom and I bought together when I was 4 years old. It has color-coded branch placement and a missing leg to its podium, lol. We prop it up with a pad of sticky notes, hahaha. Needless to say, it’s small, old, gimpy, and I LOVE it…it’s just one big Christmas memory every time I put it together and turn it into a freakin’ glow bulb with 3-4 long strings of lights. :-)

    PS But no Elvis ornaments…

  9. 9


    I guess I knew I was in the minority because I love the real trees. Thanks for the helpful chart! I forgot what we got last time but I think it was a Douglas fir. We don’t have much choice here in TX.

  10. 10


    @Bella: I’m sorry to hear that. Did she have Elvis ornaments to go with it?
    @LittleHouse: You too? Oy! Say it ain’t so, Jen!
    @BIFS: Another fake tree fan? I give up! That’s it! Next year I’m doing an article on how to pick the perfect fake Christmas tree. LOL
    @Jennifer: Really? Bless you, Jen. Please tell me you’re not just saying you have a real one to make me feel better. :-)

  11. 11

    TMS says

    Back when I was 15 I spent a day planting little pine tree sticks in my grandfather’s field. I think we planted 5,000 of the damm things on a cold rainy April day.

    By the time I was in college, the trees were 5′ tall and I started cutting one for free each year.

    Now I’m 43, my grandfather is long gone – but a friend of the family bought his property. So now I show up with a bottle of brandy, we go out and cut down a 40′ tall tree and I take the top 12′, and he lets me use his snowmobile trailer to haul the thing home. We got tall ceilings.

  12. 12


    Good tips. Had an artificial tree for a couple of years now but I’m in a mood of changing for a real one. The “branch spacing” of my artificial one is… too spacey! I didn’t know about the species though.

  13. 14


    @TMS: What a great story! Thanks so much for sharing that.
    @DNW: If you don’t like a lot of space between branches, stay away from the Noble firs. :-)
    @Holly: Am I sensing the live tree lovers are starting to make a comeback here?

    (Please, folks, if you love live trees, let us know here!!)

  14. 15

    Kathy says

    this is my first year buying a real christmas tree. I’m so excited. Can anyone tell me what type of tree has the longest life. That is my biggest criteria. thanks.

  15. 17


    Real tree, either the we fresh cut if the kids are home to help or the recently cut.
    Fraser fir is my favorite.
    I always cut the bottom off if I didn’t Paul Bunyon it myself and leave it in water overnight. It will be less likely to fall over after the water distributes itself thoroughly.

    Finally, make sure you have a big enough stand to match the tree. Flimsy stands can lead to marital discord and foul language-so I’ve heard-loudly.

  16. 18

    Jessie says

    Good column. We always had a real tree when I was young. It was usually too tall for the living room, so my dad would cut off a foot or so and I could decorate that as a mini-tree for my bedroom. I sometimes wonder if he picked the taller trees just for that reason, to provide me with the fun of having TWO trees to decorate. My little Jewish friend would help decorate our tree each year, and I would help her family light the Chanukah menorah.

    Now as an older lady, I have several dogs and cats so I don’t do trees at all – ’nuff said? I buy a big wreath for my living room and that furnishes the Christmas fragrance.

  17. 19

    Betsy22 says

    I once got a balsam fir for my (fairly small) apartment. Thought that the balsam would add some fresh, outdoorsy scent to our apartment – well, that it did, and then some! The fresh fir/piney scent hit like a brick when entering the apartment – my housemates and I actually found it a bit difficult to breathe inside the living room without having one of the windows cracked. After that I’ve always stuck to other types of fir.

    The best part of that apartment was getting rid of the tree. We were a couple of stories up and I didn’t want to scatter needles everywhere taking it downstairs, so I just opened up the window (taking out the screens), put out a lookout below, and tossed the tree out the window. The challenge was to throw the tree far enough away from the building to clear the giant 12′ azalea bush planted at the foundation of the first floor. Good times.

  18. 20


    The family dog got to marking his territory on real trees, so the past couple years we’ve used artificial. Seems to have cleared up that issue.

  19. 21

    Lola says

    I just bought my friend a little 2′ tree for her Christmas gift – a bright PINK tree! This friend has sworn that I will be required to wear that shade of pink at her wedding, and that’s the only reason I bought the tree for her. A gag gift, so to speak. Personally I prefer real trees – gotta have the pine scent in the house at Christmas!

  20. 22

    deRuiter says

    For faux tree lovers, hit the estate sales and yard sales. The prices are only a few dollars, and the last hours of a sale, you can offer a dollar for a fake tree in a box, and get the tree with the estate sale manager’s blessings. If you are in the market for a fake tree, ask at every sale you attend, and you might get lucky with someone who says, “Oh yes, we have a big tree but we didn’t think to put it out for the sale.” and snag a like new tree in original box for less than the sales tax of buying in a store. It’s better for the environment too, I can’t count the number of fake trees we’ve had to landfill after sales, over the years. In upscale areas I’ve noticed the people often toss the real tree the day or two days after Christmas. One day for a photo shoot, where we needed seven decorated Christmas trees, we cruised a few wealthy neighborhoods two days after Christmas and snagged seven beautiful real Christmas trees, brought them home, decorated them, and did the shoot. Didn’t cost anything and the photographer commented favorably on the quality of the trees. If a person were really up against the wall financially, they could celebrate Christmas two days later with a free tree (a huge, expensive one at that) and half price or less discounted gift wrap, candy and decorations. Russian Christmas comes early in January, so you’d have your choice of lovely, discarded trees if that’s your custom.

  21. 23


    Picking a tree is like a science! I really like that chart. I usually just pick the one that looks the fullest, but I love the scent of the right tree, and it’s even better if it holds on to it’s needles. I hate having to clean up after trees.

  22. 24

    Againstthegrain says

    I’ve always had real trees (Frazier fir when living on the southern Right Coast, Noble fir now that we live on the southern Left Coast), but I’ve been searching for an alternative tree for some time now. The real or fake tree dilemma has always struck me as a bit absurd because there are good reasons for not buying either, but it’s still hard to shake Christmas tree habit.

    What I’ve wanted for years is not a “fake” or “artificial” tree, but a reusable representation of a tree that will display ornaments, yet not be made of plastic or be trying in vain to look like a fresh cut tree. I know the concept comes from an experience during my teen years when my mom used the a kinetic hanging sculpture “Jesse tree” she made from simple silver wire 1/2″ hardware cloth and silver garland for a Church Sunday School activity. Its three graduated square layers hung from our living room ceiling and twirled slowly whenever the heat came on. It was easy to decorate and stored flat (4’x4′), and was completely unique. Unknown to me at the time, her primary motivation for repurposing the Jesse tree was that they were short on on funds that Christmas (must have been *really short*, because they usually bought a bargain Charlie Brown tree on or near Christmas Eve). My younger sisters hated the “not-real” tree, so we only used it twice (and later it was lost after being used as a Jesse tree again at church, but as a teen, I loved its one-of-a-kind and sophisticated look.

    I’ve seen a few great ornament display tree forms in stores, but they wren’t available retail or were very high priced.

    This year, I found the a great tree that meets my requirements, and just in time for Christmas. It’s a big dried Manzanita branch centerpiece (meant for big banquet dining tables I think), complete with its dried but relatively sturdy leaves, which actually makes a lot more sense than a fir tree for a So Cal location. It was only $15, and though it’s a little smaller than what I originally had in mind, the smaller size will make it easier to store from the rafters in the garage (or even keep on display for other holidays or without ornaments).

  23. 25

    Dumolcoot says

    I wonder where uou got the tree in the photo – It isn’t sheared!
    I try to get an unsheared tree (yes, it won’t be as “full” but it’ll be beautifully “symmetrical” and great to put ornaments on. I don’t see anyone talking about the virtues of unsheared trees. In fact, on several christmas tree sites there were photos of trees labelled “unsheared” which obviously had been sheared except perhaps not for the last year or so. That’s no help.
    There must be some other old codgers like myself, who grew up selecting christmas trees long before anyone thought of shearing them and learned to appreciate the beauty of the natural symmetry of the fir tree as it grows without interference by any tasteless man.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *