The city where Christmas trees are against the law

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The Independent Online
NAVIGATING the Christmas season in the United States is always tricky. Religious sensitivities mean that "Happy Holidays" is always a safer bet than "Happy Christmas" as a greeting, and you can forget any notion of your little ones performing in a nativity play at school, where promotion of any single faith will be strictly outlawed. But since when has it been illegal to decorate your home with a Christmas tree? Since 1978, if you happen to live in Philadelphia and your home is in an apartment block or a converted brownstone with three or more dwellings. There is a city law that says that if those are your circumstances and you erect a tree, however pleasing its shape, you risk being fined a handsome $300 (pounds 190).

This, as it happens, has nothing to do with political correctness. It stems from a concern about fire risk and, specifically, that fir trees, once they have been standing around in your centrally-heated living room for a week or so, become perfect kindling for an inferno that could destroy your entire building. Many American cities, in fact, bar live trees from public spaces, such as libraries, schools, hospitals, and hotels for the very same reason. But Philadelphia has taken caution further than most. The only way round the law is to make sure your tree still has its roots and they, in turn, are wrapped in moist sacking. Alternatively, you can buy an artificial tree that is certified as fireproof.

There is, of course, a problem with enforcement. City officials in Philadelphia concede that deploying police officers to knock on the doors of every apartment subject to the code - an estimated 157,000 of them - is hardly practicable. But the law, they say, is a good one that should be respected.

"We want people to have a happy safe holiday," says executive fire chief Henry Dolberry - notice his careful choice of words. "If nothing else, at least with the law on the books we can raise a few people's awareness of fire prevention."

This is a country where there are statistics for every issue and the Philadelphia tree controversy is no exception. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission tells us that Christmas trees are responsible for one out of every 1,000 home fires in America. Likewise, for every proponent of a particular regulation there will always be an opponent, and in this case it is the Christmas Tree Association.

"We're not trying to pick a fight with anyone, but people should be able to enjoy their real Christmas trees," said Ellis Schmidt, the chairman of the association. "A well-maintained tree is not the hazard a lot of people think it is. We don't feel this law is based on fact".