Barking up the wrong tree

Robert Winder's Notebook

There's a strange and not too edifying sight in the window of Coutts Bank at the moment (on the Strand, opposite Charing Cross station). It is a collection of designer Christmas trees, due to be auctioned off on Tuesday at a gala charity dinner for Save the Children. This is a good enough cause, to be sure, and on second thoughts the trees themselves are an apt symbol of our modern Christmas, standing for conspicuous, not to say extravagant, consumption.

There's a crystal tree, hung with pricey wine glasses, and a Harrods tree, an intergalactic monstrosity of pulsing purple neon; there's a caviare tree, a silver sturgeon standing in a pearly oyster shell, and a bat tree, a metallic cartoon loaded with clothes from Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Gianfranco Ferre. There's a snowman and a video-bubble tree, a tree made of silk cushions and another crammed with fake diamonds. They look good as smart decorations in the marble foyer of a bank; they wouldn't look out of place in the first-class lounge at an airport. But if Coutts were in Seattle, the windows would have been smashed. The exhibit carries only the faintest echo of anything to do with trees, and merrily trashes the essential beauty of the custom - that little touch of forest we introduce to our festive living-rooms.

Like many of our most ancient traditions, Christmas trees are neither ancient nor British; and certainly there is nothing Palestinian or biblical about our taste for Nordic spruce.

This has roots in Roman and pagan customs (the Druids celebrated the winter solstice with mistletoe; the Saxons preferred holly and ivy) but the illuminated conifer was a German idea, perhaps even a revelation of Martin Luther's. One night, the story goes, he was staring at the trees, thinking idle thoughts about religious upheavals, when he was struck by the transcendent grandeur of the fir tree before him, quiet, solemn and haloed by the glittering night sky. He installed one in his home, with candles to symbolise the stars.

The idea didn't catch on here until 1840, when Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, were pictured at Windsor castle with their Prussian tree. So the tradition of Christmas trees, though it seems part of our folklore, is in fact only 160 years old - a baby, as traditions go.

Intriguingly, it was taken up as a symbol of avarice almost as quickly as it had been assimilated as an emblem of holiness. An 1856 engraving in the Illustrated London News shows people lunging and scrambling for the trophies hanging from the tree's branches, wholly neglectful of the pleading angels hovering above. The modern market in Christmas trees is opaque. Talk to traders in Portobello or Columbia Road and they'll turn away, reluctant to talk in any great detail about the exact provenance of their trees. This isn't altogether surprising: a good many clearly marked Nordic trees in fact come from Surrey. Christmas trees don't have serial numbers, and burglary is common.

Every year, farmers look aghast at empty fields which have been plundered in the night. The botanical dictionaries list an alarming number of pests threatening to the Norway spruce (Picea abies) - the green spruce aphid, the red spider mite, the conifer spinning mite, spruce gall adelgids, the European spruce sawfly and spruce budworm - but one of the most dangerous is left till last: theft.

But if the market is unruly - the trees are trucked in from Denmark and Scotland and sold from the back of lorries in petrol stations and on roadsides - it is also very substantial. An estimated seven million trees will be sold in the next few weeks, which means that the market is worth, at a rough guess, more than pounds 150m.

We're getting pickier. We want more expensive varieties that do not shed their needles, and ecological considerations are fuelling a small boom in pot-grown trees, which don't need to to be tipped on to the bonfire in January.

"You have to be careful about potted trees, though," said Simon Haynes, of Clifton Nurseries in London's Maida Vale. "Not all the trees in pots have been pot-grown. They won't last." A tree that has been crudely shoehorned out of a field and into a pot will have lost its thirstiest and most efficient roots, the ones that curl around the rim of the drip area, the perimeter formed by the wide branches. Most potted trees have lost these roots; you can drown them in water, but you cannot make them drink.

If we think of the modern Christmas tree as Norwegian, that is probably because of the annual lighting-up ceremony in Trafalgar Square. Every year since 1947, the city of Oslo has donated a tall spruce to the City of Westminster, as a gesture of thanks for British sacrifice during the Second World War. It has become one of the fixed points in Britain's Christmas countdown, and on Thursday night the mayor of Oslo threw the switch on this year's tree. The tree itself looked just right - tall, dark, handsome and, well, spruce - but the ceremony couldn't help feeling a touch dog- eared. A crowd composed mainly of tourists clustered around to giggle at the number plates on the official cars (WE 1 on the Mayor of Westminster's Daimler; 1NWY on the Norwegian Volvo). A camera unit from a children's TV network, set up between the paws of the lions at the foot of Nelson's column, rustled up some Norwegian children, told them what to say and then interviewed them. "So that's it from Trafalgar Square," she said. "And coming up, Power Rangers in Space!"

The choir of St Martin in the Fields sang a few carols, with the choirmaster gamely trying to stir up some support from the crowd. "I could hear them," he said, indicating the boys in their chilly-looking red and white robes. "But I couldn't hear you." What with the traffic and the December wind, it felt like a desperate bid for unlikely rock-star glamour. I half expected him to tap out a few thuds on the microphone and shout, "HELLO OSLO!!!"

I put my hands over my ears and tried to feel what Martin Luther had felt, tried to sense the transcendent spirit that drifted through those dark leaves and glimmering lights. But it was hard. Buses and taxis groaned and blared up towards the National Gallery, bearing huge advertisements for the millennial Christmas offerings of the brother-and-sister duo, Will and Delia Smith.

Pigeon droppings lay deep and crisp and even on the cold concourse between the fountains. The leader of the brass band, perhaps not used to the high- power sound system strung from the lampposts, could be heard to mutter: "OK, let's do `Jingle Bells' next." The essential ingredients - the dark German forest, the night sky of northern Europe, the sense of humankind huddling for shelter in the cold night - were all missing.

And these days, carol medleys performed by brass ensembles sound like nothing so much as a shopping centre. One blast of "God Rest you Merry Gentlemen", and I was fighting to quell a panicky reflex to buy Badedas for Grandma. Still, it was better than trying to find a Christmas Tree on the Internet. So much has been written in recent months about e-shopping that I assumed, like any publicity-victim, that ordering a tree would be a piece of cake. Not a bit of it. I clicked and browsed, trawled and searched, but came up empty-handed. I found fake Roman busts, rattan trays, angora drapes and chrome-wire fruit baskets; I found zip-top polar fleeces and portable CD players; I almost found myself bidding for a 10-minute spin in a Hunting Jet Provost T Mk3 1966 XR679. But there wasn't a Christmas tree in sight, let alone one in site. My memory failed half a dozen times, and access was bluntly refused more than once. When I typed "Christmas tree", I was dismissed with a curt "No matches found". I'm sure this was my own fault, but when it comes to Christmas chopping, it seems our brave new technology is of little help.

Everyone knows that Internet euphoria has run a long way ahead of the dull, push-me-pull-you reality of electronic shopping. Probably, in some remote galaxy of the Web, there is a sparkling little outfit called Trees u Like or Trees R Us, with millionaire directors and a listing on Wall Street. I wish them luck, and they may need it. According to the Mintel Report on Christmas shopping habits, only 3 per cent of us intend to use the net for our gift buying this year (exactly the same percentage as last year - perhaps the market has peaked). Considering that 5 per cent of us intend to hop over to France for some cross-Channel shopping (even without duty free) this December, that is a very damp response indeed. And so far as Christmas trees are concerned, it looks as though this year we'll be scouting one out at a lay-by somewhere, as usual.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders