After the portly man in the red suit, the Christmas tree is perhaps the most popular icon of the holiday season in the United States.

More than 28 million Americans bought a real Christmas tree last year, contributing around $40.50 each to the $1.2 billion industry, which employs more than 100,000 people.

At $68 a pop, only about 9 million Americans bought artificial trees last year, spending a total of just over $630 million on fake firs.

With 12 days left until Santa hits the hearth, now's the time to get your Christmas tree — real or fake — trimmed and twinkling.

The National Christmas Tree Association is devoted to the promotion of real Christmas trees. Its Web site at realchristmastrees.org covers the debate over real vs. fake trees from root to tip.

As far as the environment goes, real Christmas trees are renewable. Growers plant one to three new seedlings for every tree they harvest. There also are more than 500,000 acres of Christmas trees in the United States, providing enough oxygen for 9 million people a day. You can find a local recycling program by calling 1-800-CLEANUP or by entering your ZIP code on the Web site.

On the other branch, 85 percent of artificial trees sold in the United States are manufactured in China. Made of metals and plastic — typically polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a potential source of hazardous lead — fake trees take centuries to decompose and are usually tossed out after six to nine years. On the plus side, faux Christmas trees don't shed those pesky pine needles.

If you're like me, though, the smell of a fresh evergreen during the holiday season is a must.

So where do you find the perfect naturally grown Christmas tree? A number of lots have sprouted throughout the area since Thanksgiving, offering services such as baling, shaking, drilling stumps and even free delivery.

But the most festive option for us Southerners who don't have the means to replicate the Griswold family tree-cutting tradition is a Christmas tree farm.

For a list of Christmas tree farms in the area, visit the South Carolina Christmas Tree Association's Web site at scchristmastrees.org.