About 95 million American households will have at least one Christmas tree this holiday season, and 81% of those trees will be artificial. But a real tree bought from a lot was farm grown and harvested 8–10 years after it was first cultivated from a seed. It’s more likely than not that the tree has spent years being sheared, shaped and refined before it was cut this autumn and displayed for sale—whether it’s a fir, spruce, pine, cedar or cypress.
“If you’ve got a local tree farm in your area, cutting your own is the best way to make sure your tree is fresh,” said Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association. “If you buy your tree from a local retailer, there’s a good chance the trees on the lot were cut at least a month ago.”
Dryness, electrical malfunctions with lights and trees set too close to heating sources can make for a deadly combination. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fires involving Christmas trees cause an estimated $13 million in property damage annually.
“Always make sure when you buy a live Christmas tree, it is fresh cut,” said Susan McKelvey, communications manager of the NFPA. “Grab a branch, run your hand along it and see if any needles fall. If you have a lot of needles in your hand, it means the tree is already drying out.”
Tree retailers should be willing to cut a few inches off the stump, exposing moist wood capable of absorbing water through the trunk and circulating it to the tree’s branches, McKelvey said. “When you get it home, set it in a large container of water and let it absorb as much as it can for at least a day before you bring it inside.”
Consumers need to remember that Christmas trees are flammable. The longer they are inside, the more likely they are to dry out, and that’s when they pose an increased fire hazard, McKelvey said.
The NFPA also recommends that trees be set up at least 3 feet away from any heat source, like a fireplace, heating duct or portable space heater.
Christmas tree fires are blamed for about four deaths and 15 injuries a year—but plenty more ruin property and what should be a festive day with family. There are about 500 Christmas tree fires each year, according to the NFPA.
“While the number of Christmas tree fires is relatively low, trees located too close to a heat source are a factor in 1 of every 4 such fires,” McKelvey said. “When you refill the water reservoir each day, check the tree for needle loss or other signs of dryness that may indicate it’s time to take it down.”