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Artificial trees have some distinct advantages over real ones: They don’t shed, there’s no tempting (and possibly dangerous) water for your toddlers or pets to drink and the chances of them going up in flames is far smaller than with a real tree, and every year you use one you save a real tree from death. They also average out to a far lower cost per year than real trees do. However, nothing can approach a real tree for scent and beauty. So if you make the decision to get a real tree for Christmas, there are some things you need to bear in mind.

Buy the freshest one you can find. Many real trees are cut in early October, which means that by December 25th, they’ll be fairly dry, and shedding needles rather heavily. It also means that a certain amount of extra caution needs to be exercised with regard to lighting your tree. If you’re the do-it-yourself type you can usually find a near-by Christmas tree farm where you can cut your own, ensuring the freshest possible tree. You can even buy a live tree with a bundled root ball. This can be planted outside in the spring and will increase the beauty of your property.

If you do buy your tree at a lot, there’s a kick-the-tires test you can use to determine whether the tree is too dry to use. Grab it by the trunk, about halfway up, lift it a foot or so off the ground, then drop it so the cut end of the trunk strikes the ground. If you get a shower of needles at that point, the tree is far too dry to use.

Unbundle the tree as soon as you get it home. Cut about an inch off the bottom of the trunk, peeling back some of the bark as you go. This ensures that the tree will take up more water and stay fresher. Before you place the tree in the stand, clean the stand with a mixture of bleach and water to kill any bacteria that may be left from last year. Rinse well, set the tree up in the stand, and water it immediately. If possible, let it sit in the stand for a day before you begin to decorate. The branches will all drop down to the positions they’ll be in while the tree is up. Avoid placing your tree near a radiator or heating vent because proximity to heat will dry your tree very quickly.

There are any number of “sure fire” formulas for keeping your tree fresh. Some people swear by an aspirin in the water, others use mixtures of corn syrup and water, soda pop, sugar, etc. Some people buy packets of stuff with names like “Tree Fresh” when they buy the tree or at the supermarket. If there’s anything that will absolutely keep your tree fresh longer, then by all means use it. However all you really need to remember is that it requires a lot of water. Don’t let the base of the tree dry out or you’ll lose the battle for freshness early on. Check the water daily and top it off whenever the level drops. The more water your tree takes up the longer it will remain fresh.

The water in the tree stand is potentially hazardous to children and pets, It’s also attractive to them as it’s warmish, and possibly sweet if you’ve added anything to it. Please be certain to cover the base with something like a tree skirt just to discourage casual sipping.

Make sure your lights are in good working order. With any tree, real or otherwise, it’s important to remember that the lights are ALWAYS potentially hazardous. Don’t leave them on while you’re out and don’t leave them on while everyone is asleep. Whole families have been burned in their beds because of faulty Christmas tree lights. Candles are not recommended no matter how fresh the tree, but if you do use them, never, ever leave the tree unattended. Fire can take only a few moments to sweep through a room. Also, keep all paper products away from the lights. Make sure packages are not touching low-hanging light strings. A little caution in this area always pays off in home and family security. Don’t overload your electrical outlet either. One good spark and even a fake tree can be blazing before you know it.

A live tree is a big responsibility, but with a few basic precautions, it will make your home holiday bright for weeks. And when you must finally part with it, there are many places that recycle Christmas trees these days. Even a tree that has become too dry to keep can be used as mulch for other trees and plants.