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19 December 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

If your tree could talk . . . What would it say about you? Joe Moran on the great annual fir-versus-fake needle match

NS Christmas - If your tree could talk . . . What would it say about you? Joe Moran on the great ann

By Joe Moran

In case you haven’t heard, the artificial black Christmas tree is this season’s modish item. But if you want one, you’re too late: John Lewis sold out in November. It is the latest addition to a case study in the adaptability of the market: the changing fashions of the Christmas tree, and the long battle between real and fake fir.

The home-grown Christmas tree business began in the early 1930s, when the government banned the importing of Continental trees in an attempt to keep destructive pests away from Britain’s elms and conifers. Landowners took the opportunity to develop Christmas tree plantations and it became a specialised industry. Tree farmers also started removing the roots or dipping them in boiling water before sale, so they would not survive the winter and customers would have to buy new trees the next year.

But Christmas trees were only ever popular at Christmas. Fast-growing conifers were the windfarms of the 1940s and 1950s, loathed for being ugly, alien blots on the landscape compared with native beech and oak. Writers of the time complained about “impudent little spruce trees goose-stepping on the fells”, “gloomy regiments of dark spruce trees, all exactly alike”, and “spruce slums, ruining the soil”.

When European regulations forced the Forestry Commission to lift its ban on tree imports in 1979, the British Christmas Tree Growers Association declared war on the Continental tree, warning consumers that trees felled in October and then shipped hundreds of miles were more likely to lose their needles than the dependable British tree.

Bringing a tree into the house in the depths of winter has traditionally been a symbol of life and fertil- ity. For the house-proud, the problem is that with life comes death. Needles have always fallen off Christmas trees, but “needle drop” as an invented consumer anxiety dates from the 1970s – a product of our drier, centrally heated homes, which make trees shed earlier, and increased market differentiation caused by competition from both imported and plastic trees.

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The Nordmann fir overtook the Norwegian spruce as the most popular type of Christmas tree in the early 1990s because it responded best to this changing mar- ket. It has soft, bushy foliage that won’t hurt children’s fingers, evenly spaced branches, a nice piny scent and an exemplary needle-retention rate. This designer Christmas tree successfully demoted the plastic variety to the status of 1970s tat.

But the artificial tree is no longer naff; sales have been rising since the late 1990s and are up more than 30 per cent on last year. The fake-tree market relies even more on innovation because the customer who already has a perfectly good plastic tree needs to be persuaded to buy another one. For years manufacturers have been trying to make fake trees more realistic by, for example, using injection mould technology to produce springier, more pointed needles like real ones. But now the plastic Christmas tree is proud to be fake: it comes in pink, white, lilac and, of course, black.

Artificial trees, we are being told, are much easier to co-ordinate with our tasteful, minimalist homes. Unease at Christmas kitsch dates back to the Habitat-inspired trend for “conspicuous thrift” in the 1960s. In December 1967 the style journalist Hilary Gelson warned her readers not to “over-accessorise” in their Christmas decorations: “You will find the simpler the idea the more effective the results will be . . . Aim at creating a bold over-all effect by using a minimum of well-chosen props.” This year the editor of Ideal Home similarly advised that black trees “fit into our current interiors very well” and that “Christmas trees decked out with red and gold decorations will stick out like a sore thumb”.

If you buy an artificial tree with built-in lights or fibre-optic tips, you don’t even have to worry about decorating it with potentially garish tinsel and baubles. And, unlike the primitive plastic trees of the past, the modern fake does not come in bits that have to be assembled; it just opens up easily like a brolly. There is no hassle, no mess and no danger of committing any stylistic faux pas. After all, Christmas gaiety is a serious business.

Joe Moran lectures at Liverpool John Moores University

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