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Why real Christmas trees aren’t allowed in some Philly homes

They’re forbidden in high-rises and apartment buildings

In Philly, real Christmas trees are only allowed in one- and two-family dwellings.
Courtesy of Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock.com

This time of year, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing that Christmas tree all decked out, gaudy baubles and all, especially after you’ve schlepped it home block by block from a South Philly parking lot.

But amid all of that sweat, blood, and tears to find the perfect non-Charlie Brown tree, you might have forgotten to ask one important question: Is this glorious, real tree even legal?

Not if you live in a high-rise or a multiunit building in Philly.

And chances are your apartment or condo building’s management won’t let you forget it. It’s this time of year that this annual PSA gets blasted out to tenants. Here’s the e-mail this author received this week:

With the holidays approaching and everyone beginning to decorate their apartments, please note that the Philadelphia Fire Department does not allow real Christmas trees in high-rise apartment buildings. This is considered a fire hazard unless you live in a one- or two-family dwelling.

It’s true: Since 1982, Philadelphia’s official fire code has clearly stated this under the section titled “Decorative vegetation in new and existing buildings”: “Natural cut trees shall be prohibited in [...] all buildings. Exceptions: One- and two-family dwellings.”

Other major cities have less stringent regulations on real Christmas trees. In New York, for example, the fire code states, “Indoor display of Christmas trees is also prohibited in retail stores and most other occupancies. However, indoor display of cut Christmas trees is allowed in one and two family homes; in dwelling units in apartment buildings; and in houses of worship.”

If Philly’s policy sounds outdated, you’re not alone. Folks have been complaining about this lesser-known legality for years now: One writer asked City Hall why it hates Christmas trees. Others have even admitted to skirting the law: “Let people live a little,” one Temple student said to the Inquirer.

The code exists, the Philadelphia Fire Department says each year, because a lot of times Christmas trees become really dry over time and turn into living fire hazards. (Hey, it happens: On average there are about 200 Christmas tree fires reported each year in the U.S.)

Word on the street is that the code isn’t strictly enforced, but if you do get caught with a real Christmas tree it’ll cost you a $300 violation ticket. Bah Humbug!

And if you do have a real tree, the Philadelphia Fire Department has some advice: Keep it hydrated! If you bend the needles and they break off, the tree is too dry.