Tried & Tested: The Fake Fir Look

They don't drop needles, and they're re-usable, but how do they look? We hang our lights on artificial trees

Traditionalists often insist that Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without a decorated tree - a Germanic custom only prevalent in this country since Prince Albert popularised the idea after his marriage to Queen Victoria. Some modernists dispense with them altogether on grounds of taste, space- saving, ecological considerations or general bah-humbug, but others simply update the concept by buying into the plastic variety.

THE PANEL

Our fake Christmas tree judges were Becky Munford, Piers Kotting, Matt Innes, Nigel Floyd and one-year-old Elliott Hudd.

THE TEST

We tried to find a range of fake Christmas trees in traditional and modern style, to please all tastes and size of dwelling. For the most part, decoration is left to the purchaser, but some incorporate it cunningly into their design. This was seen as a plus factor, as were ease of assembly, storage and safe display. The rest was all visual appeal.

***MONTEREY PINE

6ft, pounds 32.99

The panel was largely indifferent to this green "bog standard trad tree" (Piers Kotting) with fir cone feature. But the fake Monterey Pine has reasonably authentic branches which only require bending outwards from the trunk, stands solidly on the floor and sells at a good price for something which will last for years and look fine once it has been decorated. Matt Innes complained that some of the fir cones had been attached upside down "by poor workers in a country where they've probably never seen them growing", but most people wouldn't notice.

*GOLD APPLE AND PEAR TREE

3ft, pounds 39

In theory, a ready-assembled tree with its own integral decorations - particularly ones reflecting "The Twelve Days of Christmas" - sounded perfect, the answer to the lazy tree decorator's dreams. Yet this bright gold incarnation, which stands only 3ft high in a matching glitzy woven basket, was immediately derided as "hideous" by the panel. Only Nigel Floyd acclaimed it as being "magnificent, tasteless, fit for any occasion, the perfect Christmas deterrent, in fact". Even allowing for the lack of colour, the apples and pears are exceptionally unlife-like. They are attached by their bottoms, with extra twig on top as if they had already been picked and stuck guiltily back on. Forbidden fruit, indeed.

WHITE, IRIDESCENT TINSEL TREE

6ft, pounds 50

We ordered this in our quest for something wonderfully camp. It turned up, perplexingly, without a stand and indeed without many branches, to loll pathetically against the wall, the orphan of our collection. "It looks like a broom handle with pipe cleaners and poorly draped tinsel - the sort of thing an advanced infant would bring home from school crafts lessons, except it costs pounds 50," commented Becky Munford. The rest of the panel agreed. "The branches are too short; they look stunted," said Nigel Floyd, while Piers Kotting pointed out that the "top twig isn't central, it looks more like an Indian's feather." "Surely this tree should have a sunshade stuck on top?" was Matt Innes's opinion, relegating it firmly to the land of Seventies jumble sale chic.

**SILVER TWIG TREE

3ft, pounds 39; 4ft, pounds 59

"This is an anti-Christmas tree," said Matt Innes of this skeletal, frosted affair. "No big, cuddly, red-faced Father Christmas worth his salt would put a present anywhere near it." The silver twig tree takes some assembling, since the branches have to be hung on a central pole in order of descending size to create the requisite cone shape, and the frosted effect makes for some very sharp metal. Once up, it was thought "striking in a minimalist way" (Nigel Floyd), but inherently dangerous - especially for small children, animals and those under the influence of Christmas spirits. "This tree makes falling into a fairy-tale forest more like dating a man in spiky armour," said Piers Kotting, but he conceded that "you could use it as a hatstand without the branches." Unfortunately you would then have to find somewhere to store the branches in their special- sized boxes - supposing you still fancied the same cold, winter wonderland theme for Christmas next year.

**WIRE LATITUDE TABLE-TOP TREE

1ft, pounds 3.50

For people with no room for a floor-standing Christmas tree and modern tastes comes this delicate, gold, spiral table-top tree, for which you can purchase tiny baubles. "This isn't a tree," said Nigel Floyd, with depressing literalism, "it doesn't count." Becky Munford was more specific: "It looks like Jean-Paul Gaultier's design for Madonna's breast-things," she said, adding doubtfully, "I suppose it would be a talking point." Piers Kotting dubbed it an "executive office toy", so obviously its uses are many, and it is not expensive, even if it is apt to become more lopsided than latitudinal after any slight maltreatment. Bauble-buyers beware, then - they won't hang straight after inadvertent squashing of the tree.

BLUE MOUNTAIN FIR

6ft, pounds 69.99

"This tree is extremely ugly, it is not blue and you'll spend hours assembling it," declared an outraged Piers Kotting, who did indeed spend three-quarters of an hour getting to grips with minimal instructions and a whole forest of branches for this artificial Blue Mountain Fir. Less stressed, the other members of the panel thought that it looked "quite nice, at a distance" (Becky Munford), but not sufficiently Blue Mountain Fir-like to warrant its rather steep asking price.

*****FIBRE OPTIC TREE

3ft, pounds 49.95

Cruelly characterised by Nigel Floyd as "the Yuletide lava-lamp for the caring Nineties", this small, green, ready-assembled tree with glowing lights which change colour at the tip of every branch was nevertheless voted unanimously the winner of our tree survey. It seemed suited to both home and office. The electronics are concealed in a black plastic plant pot which is far too utilitarian, but apart from this the tree is lovely to look at. "Just think," said the mesmerised Matt Innes, "on Boxing Day when you're hungover and everyone's gone home, you could sit and stare at it for hours." You could also save money on both lights and decorations, which made its price seem reasonable. And surprisingly for such hi-tech equipment, the Fibre Optic tree was the most child-friendly of the lot, with its super-soft "needles" and cool lights. Elliot Hudd (aged just one) could and did touch the glowing tips of branches with great fascination and no damage to either tree or small person.

****BLACK TINSEL TREE

6ft, pounds 69.99

Only "slightly tarantula-esque" (Piers Kotting), this big, lush tree with long branches and a stem which is thoughtfully covered with tinsel turned out to be the panel's second favourite. You don't have to attach the branches separately - simply bend them out from the trunk in the traditional manner - to create something with presence and style. "It looks like a cross yeti," said Matt Innes, "it's really cool." "It certainly has an authentic loss of needles," noted Nigel Floyd, but we supposed the tinsel strand loss was a result of installation and would soon stop. The triangular base is practical, but ugly; you would have to heap presents around it. Nonetheless, said Becky Munford, "It's a sexy, sleek tree for a classier Christmas."

STOCKISTS

Fibre Optic Tree and Black Tinsel Tree from Selfridges, London, W1; Monterey Pine and Blue Mountain Fir from Woolworths; Silver Twig Tree and Gold Apple and Pear Tree from branches of John Lewis; White, Iridescent Tinsel Tree and Wire Latitude Table-top Tree from Paperchase (for stockists and mail order, telephone 0171 580 8496). !

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