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Black Christmas trees: A symbol of 2020 angst or a refined choice?

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 12, 2020

By Elizabeth Mayhew Special to The Washington Post

There is a decorating trend that has slowly been creeping, Grinch-like, into the holiday season. People across the country have been ditching their very green evergreens for artificial black trees.

It makes sense for right now: With a still-raging pandemic, millions out of work and food pantries inundated, a black tree seems like the perfect symbol for our plagued 2020. But for black-tree lovers, it’s not a symbol at all. It’s a stylistic choice, one that devotees say is classic, glamorous and extremely versatile.

Kara Trombetta, a photographer based in Austin, has had a black tree for several years. She shoots mainly in black and white, wears only black clothing and has a monochromatic house, so a black tree seemed like the perfect holiday decoration. The problem: She couldn’t find one.

“Four years ago, I just had this idea that I wanted a black tree, so I asked around, but the response I got was that the idea was either too goth or too ‘Nightmare Before Christmas.’ ” After weeks of searching, she finally found one online from a German boutique. “I ordered it in April and it came in October, and we have used it every Christmas since.”

Black trees have become increasingly popular in recent years, as people like Trombetta have sought a versatile option that works as a backdrop for any type of ornament or that more accurately reflects their design sensibility.

Tami Kelley, a trend expert for Treetopia, an online resource for artificial colored trees, says black trees are selling extremely well this year. (All sales, including black-tree sales, are up more than 50% this year on Treetopia’s site.) She suggests that might be because black trees have a very polished, stylish look, and they work with just about any color and decorating scheme.

“Think of them as the little black dress of your holiday decor,” Kelly says.

When asked if there are any decorating rules to follow when using a black tree, Trombetta said: “As an artist, I don’t like to give people rules. I say just go with whatever your jam is.”

Unlike other black trees on the market, Trombetta’s has a matte finish, so it does not have a glittery, tinselly cast, which she says would be too blingy for her. She decorates it with a neutral palette in keeping with the rest of her home, using white silk flowers, little bundles of gold twigs and gray, ivory and white ornaments.

The tree is the centerpiece of her holiday decorations and takes center stage in the family’s living room. If you’re wondering what she does with all the homemade, heartfelt ornaments that her two kids have made or the colorful baubles that she and her husband have been given as gifts, they are on an artificial green tree that she puts upstairs near her kids’ rooms.

Photographer David A. Land and his husband, writer Rumaan Alam, also chose to put up an artificial black-and-gold ombré tree in their New York City home this year. Traditionally, Land had bought only real trees but had always considered an artificial one for the holidays.

Land finally decided to get one this year, mostly so he could decorate early – something many people have been doing to combat feelings of isolation or sadness related to the pandemic.

But Land didn’t want an artificial tree that looked almost real. “When I started looking, I thought, if you are going to have a fake tree, you might as well really make it really clear that it’s fake.” The tree Land settled on, like most fake trees, is easy to put up and comes pre-lighted. And unlike Trombetta’s matte tree, it has an iridescent look, shimmering when the light hits it. The tree is a bit over the top, Land says, but he and Alam have always been “drawn to things that are a little outrageous.”

They also found an added benefit to the nontraditional black-and-gold tree. “Rumaan did not grow up with Christmas traditions in his family because they are Muslim, so Christmas has been a little bit of a stranger to him,” Land says. “Finding things that we can enjoy together has been part of us making our own family traditions.”

Another benefit to black trees: They fit perfectly with Halloween decorations. “This year, we saw people putting their black trees up just before Halloween, and they will likely keep them up through” New Year’s, Kelly says. You just need to swap out the skulls and orange ribbon for ornaments and tinsel.

Despite their growing popularity, black Christmas trees are not for everyone. Trombetta says the reactions to her tree have been polarized: People either like it or say it’s sacrilegious. She is interested to see the reaction when she and her family move to Italy.

She says she has pared down the family’s belongings to fit in a small shipping container, but she will be taking her black tree with her. “My black Christmas tree is a nonnegotiable keeper item,” she says.

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