The Greening of Christmas
From Trees to Lights to Holiday Cards, We All Have More Eco-Choices

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

This holiday season, green is hotter than red.

For the first time, two of the nation's most famous Christmas trees -- Washington's National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse and the tree in New York's Rockefeller Center -- will be illuminated with LED energy-saving lights.

At the White House, all Christmas trees, wreaths and garlands will be shredded after the holidays and recycled as mulch. In the evenings after official events are over, all holiday lights except the Official White House Christmas Tree in the Blue Room will be switched off.

"President and Mrs. Bush are quietly doing a lot to make the White House more green," says Emily A. Lawrimore, White House spokeswoman, producing a two-page list of eco-friendly improvements including compact fluorescent light bulbs, low-flow toilets and green cleaning products. "They have done many things to make the White House as energy efficient as possible."

All this provides a shining example at a time when more and more Americans are taking seriously the environmental implications of their lifestyle and looking to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa in an Earth-friendly way.

"I don't think anyone profits when people go insane with spending on Christmas," says Jim Motavalli, editor of E, the Environmental Magazine. Every December, his family brings out an artificial tree inherited from grandparents and decorates it with vintage 60-year-old Shiny Brite ornaments stored in original boxes. "Reusing and recycling is a good thing," he adds.

That can be hard to keep in mind with all the decorating, card mailing and partying ahead. And all those gifts. If Mother Earth could talk, she'd probably ask that we all just stop shopping so much. Or give copies of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" DVD wrapped in banana fiber.

It is a commitment. Although easier on the environment, green products -- just like organic food -- are not necessarily easier on the pocketbook, says Pam Danziger, president of the consumer research firm Unity Marketing. Current economic uncertainty, she says, means many consumers will not spend more on a gift merely for the sake of going green. "People cling to their traditions. It's going to take a lot for someone to say, 'Oh, because of global warming, maybe I should not wrap my presents in wrapping paper this year. Maybe I should use newspaper.' "

The first step in reducing Santa's carbon footprint is to get educated, so we've put together advice about alternatives. Another good idea: Check the Web site of your favorite environmental nonprofit group. Many have compiled their own green checklists and will be happy to sell you a gift membership to use as a stocking stuffer. In a stocking made of hemp, of course.


A tree is a cherished hallmark of Christmas, but what's the greener choice: fake, real or a living tree with a root ball? Like so many environmental decisions, it's a trade-off.

With artificial trees, no living tree is destroyed for the sake of a few twinkling weeks, and the tree can be used year after year without replacement. Yet according to the National Christmas Tree Association, 85 percent of artificial trees are made in China of plastics and metals that are not biodegradable. They also have to be shipped long distances.

Keith Ware is a co-owner of Washington's Eco-Green Living store, which sells such products as reusable grocery bags and recycled rubber-tire floors. He says he has had the same fake tree for six years. "I didn't like paying a lot of money for a real tree and then having to throw it away," says Ware. He says he would replace it if he found an artificial tree made of entirely recycled materials.

Even at eco-friendly Web sites such as, a green-focused media outlet, there isn't a single unassailable answer to which tree choice is greenest, except perhaps having no tree at all -- hardly acceptable to the public at large. TreeHugger's 2007 Holiday Gift Guide says the latest research shows that pesticides are found on some real trees, and the country is lacking a supply of truly organic Christmas trees.

Ecologically enlightened experts suggest shopping only at local tree farms, where no fuel was used trucking the tree across the country. Ask if pesticides or other chemicals were used at the nursery.

Real trees, wreaths and garlands are biodegradable and can be chipped into mulch, compost or wood chips after the holidays. Some used Christmas trees have been repurposed to build fences to combat erosion at coastal wetlands, to create nesting structures for great blue herons and to provide cover for animals at wildlife rehabilitation sites. The 84-foot Norway spruce at New York's Rockefeller Center this year will be cut into lumber to be used at Habitat for Humanity building sites.

Living trees, sold with the root ball attached and meant to be planted after the holidays, are often trumpeted as being the truly green solution. But usually, many of the tree's roots are cut off when it is removed from the ground, making its long-term survival dubious. If you go with this alternative, make sure to choose a variety that will thrive in your climate and won't grow too large. They must be well watered and ideally should not be kept inside the house for more than a week.

There is a new concept in living trees: container Christmas trees. Louis Nichols of Loudoun Nursery in Purcellville sells container trees grown in a synthetic fabric that releases heat and helps build the root structure of the tree (

The seedlings he plants will take about 10 years to mature into six- or seven-foot trees. The majority of the roots are contained inside the fabric, with only a few reaching out and drawing nutrients directly from the soil.

"You tear off only a few roots when one is sold and taken off the lot," Nichols says. The tree can be wrapped in a trash bag indoors or kept in a large planter. Then, after Christmas, plant it in the yard or donate it to a nearby park.

Jura Koncius


If you're looking for a green approach to holiday lighting for your tree and outdoor displays, there's no downside to using LEDs (light-emitting diodes) in place of incandescent bulbs. They are sold in a range of colors and styles, remain cool to the touch, can last up to 20 years and are energy-efficient, using 80 percent to 90 percent less energy than regular bulbs., a five-year-old online store based in San Francisco, says that conventional holiday lights used six hours a day can add $30 a month to electrical bills, while their LED counterparts would cost 50 cents to operate. LED lights were at one time more expensive than incandescent, but now indoor/outdoor LED lights can be purchased from big-box retailers for less than $10 for a 25-light strand.

A more expensive approach is to choose solar-powered holiday lights A basic strand of 50 lights, from, costs about $30. These lights have a solar cell and two rechargeable AA batteries. The batteries store enough solar energy to provide nine hours of outdoor light.

Brenna Maloney

Holiday Cards

More than 2.2 billion Christmas cards will be sent during the December holidays, according to Hallmark, which produced 2,600 card designs for the 2007 season, according to company spokeswoman Linda B. O'Dell.

And consider this: The use of e-mailed cards of all kinds -- marking birthdays, Mother's Day and other events -- is booming, up 23 percent already this year compared with 2006. That trend is expected to continue through the end of the year, according to Megan Ferington, a spokeswoman for American Greetings, which has three online sources for e-cards. (Hallmark also offers more than 100 styles of holiday e-cards.)

Sending a computer greeting saves paper, transportation and postage. But if hitting the delete button after reading a card just isn't as heartwarming as propping a paper card on the mantel, there are still Earth-friendly strategies. First, buy only cards made with recycled content. This is getting easier all the time as major card companies use more recycled paper.

Don't buy vinyl-coated, glittery or fuzzy cards, which can't be recycled. At, you can find links to cards made with recycled paper and printed with vegetable ink. One is a drawing of a reindeer with an energy-saving bulb on his nose and the message "Rudolph Switches to Compact Fluorescent."

Another tactic: Resolve to repurpose those pretty paper cards. Save them for the holidays next year, then cut up your favorites and turn them into gift tags.

If you find yourself increasingly tempted by the eco-sensible ease of sending holiday greetings online, consider the ways you can personalize that approach. One suggestion: Put together a family slide show on a photo-sharing Web site such as or instead of printing a photo and mailing it to everyone on your list.

Jura Koncius

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