MY OLDEST FRIEND’S HAD SOME PRETTY SORRY MOMENTS IN THE lifetime of our friendship, but last month was her sorriest: She bought a fake Christmas tree. We live in a state that’s a fir forest; she bought a “tree” made in China out of petroleum.

We grew up together, sharing frigid outings to Lions Club parking lots to pick out real Christmas trees: the kind made of sticky sap and sharp needles, that perfumed the living room and sucked water and stood crooked and were beige by Christmas. The whole real nine yards, because everyone knows real is better than fake.

Everyone besides the 63 percent of American Christmas celebrators who buy fake, she fired back. “I knew you’d think it was stupid, but I couldn’t keep justifying killing trees every year just to give my family a fragrant holiday,” she huffed. “It doesn’t feel right to treat the earth as my personal Christmas supply store!”

I couldn’t argue. I feel that same sense of selfish waste every January 2nd as I drag the balding carcass out to the curb, embedding needles in the carpet as I go—needles my family will find with their bare feet well past Flag Day. Sure it would be chipped into mulch and given back to the earth, but who am I to have enabled its removal in the first place?

As she ticked off the practical benefits—no obsessive vacuuming, no bare spots, none of the morbid, hospicelike weirdness of gathering around a tree in the living room to watch it die—I started to envy her. For starters there was the cost savings: Even if I disciplined myself to stay with the cheap Doug fir at the U-cut farm—something I’m terribly religious about until I get an eyeful of a perfect $90 Noble—a faux fir, even a good one, would pay for itself in just a few years.

But the convenience of a fake tree is a bigger deal than cost, a fact no one needs to tell a parent. In my experience most people with children are so mortally exhausted from making the magic happen all season that by the time the final curtain drops on Christmas night they would gladly trade away that weekend they lost scream-negotiating with their spouse over whose turn it is to untangle the f*ing Christmas lights.

Indeed—so a forever tree lacks the romance of tromping into the wilderness with a saw and a Sno-Park permit, I see no reason a lasting memory couldn’t be made out of a family trip to the garage! I could make hot chocolate…Dad could unpack the cardboard box…and the children would gather round the bikes and belt sanders, eyes glistening as they listened for the ritual snap of the top half of the plastic tree clicking into the bottom.

It does go snap by the way. At least my friend’s did when I contritely arrived at her house to “admire” it. (Damned if the things don’t even come prelit.) By then, of course, I’d done my homework and knew for certain that real trees are better for the environment than fake ones, which are loaded with PVCs, made from nonrenewable resources, shipped from across the planet, and biodegradable as Twinkies.

“And your tree, I trust, was grown pesticide free on an organic farm that you didn’t have to drive to?” she jabbed. Touche. Besides, my friend and I were both wrong and we knew it. In the mild Pacific Northwest the far-and-away most responsible Christmas tree is a living one, growing in a pot, that can be brought inside for up to 10 days and then replanted outside in its native habitat.

Of course this invites its own set of problems, not least of which is the tree farm in your backyard after a few years of enlightened replanting. The Everett-based Adopt a Stream Foundation (streamkeeper.org) provides one solution, offering diminutive live Sitka spruces and Western red cedars and Douglas firs—all under five feet tall—for rent.

You order your $30-ish tree in advance, pick it up on December 17, set it up in your house next to an east-facing window—then return it after the holiday for environmental elves to replant beside a stream bed for restoration of salmon habitats in King and Snohomish counties.

This year some 200 lucky families—the number Adopt a Stream plans to rent—will be able to build their own holiday rituals around this pragmatic tradition, perhaps circling the old tannenbaum singing “O Rental Tree” in its original German. For the rest of us it will come down as it ever does to the one question so increasingly universal it has left existential inquiry in its dust: Paper or plastic?

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