Forget the traditional English Christmas, that tasteful red and green affair: the swags of holly and dried fruit dangling from the mantelpiece and the baubles weighing down the branches of the real tree. Tradition, taste and restraint have become anathema to many shops at Christmas. This year in the decorations departments you'll see trees festooned with all that is glitzy and kitsch, and with the onward march of technology even the real tree's days could be numbered.

To most people there is only one sort of artificial tree - a large loo- brush in silver, white or green. But manufacturing has improved dramatically over the past 10 years and the current crop of trees is surprisingly lifelike. Woolworths' top of the range tree is a 6ft Monterey Pine, pounds 39.99. With its tapered, brown and green branches and its pine cones, the tree is very effective from a distance. Over at Harrods the top sellers are the 8-10ft trees in all their ranges. A 5ft Blue Ridge Fir will set you back pounds 69.95 while a stately 8ft Elizabeth Pine, will cost a painful pounds 215. Peter Jones has a good choice: Bavarian Pines from pounds 12.50 to pounds 95 and Canadian Pines from pounds 5.95 to pounds 65.00. Woolworths takes convenience to its limit with its pre-decorated tree with little parcels glued to the branches, pounds 19.99.

Ian Jones of Porth Innovations, the UK's only tree manufacturer, explains the appeal of the artificial tree. "They are for people who want a tree but don't like the idea of real trees being cut down, or can't afford a real tree and an artificial one, which lasts several years, makes more sense financially."

Although they are convincing at a distance their lack of smell is the real giveaway. "I think every manufacturer is working on that one," Ian Jones adds. In the meantime there are a number of sprays on the market which might disguise the impostor's true identity. Most department stores sell pine fragrances for the tree at about pounds 3.99 a can. But the aroma is more lavatory air freshener than Bavarian pine forest. The best is Aromatique's The Smell of the Tree which comes as a scented candle, spray or Decorative Fragrance (from pounds 7.50).

Fairy lights are a perennial favourite and Woolworths is the place to go for the largest and cheapest selection. You can practically turn your tree into a juke box with little bulbs flashing in time to synthesised versions of your favourite carols. Lovely. Although there are musical bells pounds 18.99, coloured lanterns from pounds 12.99, and all manner of blinking, flashing, chasing coloured lights on offer, the plain white lights remain the most popular at pounds 1.99 a pack. Best of the lot are the fabulously kitsch clip-on electric candles, pounds 7.99.

On a groovier note Liberty stocks chains of green or red chilli pepper lights (pounds 28.50). Simply add Liberty's glass fruit and veg baubles, from pounds 2.75 each, to give your tree the full Carmen Miranda treatment.

For Harrods, Christmas is a very big deal: the decorations department is open from August and there is pressure from America to open permanently. This December hundreds of trees across the States will be decked out with Harrods' best-selling decoration, a coloured bauble emblazoned with the store's logo and Happy Christmas 1995, pounds 1.25. For the ultimate in kitsch check out Harrods' Heritage Collection which celebrates all things English: there are figurines of policemen, Beefeaters and guardsmen from pounds 3.95 and gaudy Union Jack baubles (pounds 2.50).

Though nativity scenes and cribs are still popular Twinkley Down, Woolworths' secular alternative, is probably the shape of things to come. If you are dreaming of a kitsch Christmas then this is a must under the tree. There are several illuminated ceramic buildings to choose from, including the all important pub. The starter kit, which includes the lighting system and three buildings, is pounds 16.99, then you can add fake snow (99p a packet) and a few little Twinkley Down people (pounds 1.99 for three). The idea is to collect all the different designs to create a village in among the Christmas presents under the tree.

What next? A whole shopping mall? You could be forgiven for thinking that 25 December was actually the feast day of commerce and the credit card. CP

A real tree is an absolute must for a truly traditional Christmas - preferably lit by candles. David Constable of Candle Makers Supplies sells packs of candles specially for the tree (20 for pounds 2.80). At the turn of the century these would have been held in place by tin clips in the shape of butterflies, Santa and holly. You will have to make do with something rather plainer. German-style clips (10 for pounds 5.65) or Swedish-style weighted clips, which ensure the candies sit upright (10 for pounds 8.75, 95p each - all from Candle Makers Supplies).

If you feel nervous of using the real thing, there are pretty wooden fake candles on a wire, with a gold glitter tipped flame (six for pounds 6.95) at The Christmas Chapter. The shop has a section devoted to the Victorian look, with wooden nutcrackers (pounds 14.95), wooden rocking horses (pounds 12.50), and little Victorian soldiers to hang on the tree (pounds 3.95).

For other decorations made from authentic materials, head to Liberty. The shop reports a rush on tin Santas for the tree (at pounds 2.85). Also on sale are Victorian-style velvet balls with gold embroidery for pounds 4.50. Selfridges stocks colourful large feathers for pounds 4.99 each and decorativebirds (pounds 6.99 each). IKEA has a range of straw decorations which are traditional in Scandinavia; assorted packs of flowers and stars cost pounds 3 each.

You'd be hard pressed to find authentic tinsel (once made from real silver or shavings of tin). Rodney Bass of The Christmas Chapter suggests using strands of faceted bullion wire (five strands for pounds 1) for greater authenticity and a subtle shine. This super fine wire was historically used to draw attention to fine detail on ecclesiastical carvings

Christie's South Kensington is holding an auction of original Christmas decorations and related objects on 8 December at 2pm.

For inspiration fromChristmases past, visit the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch, where 11 rooms are styled with period decorations - from Elizabethan times to 1950s kitsch. JA

Where to get your baubles and bows

Candle Makers Supplies, 28 Blythe Road, London W14 (0171 602 4031). Christie's South Kensington, 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (0171- 581 7611).The Christmas Chapter, 162 Sloane St, London SW1 (0171 838 9070). Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1 (0171-730 1234). IKEA, Valley Park, Purley Way, Croydon, Surrey (0181 208 5601). Liberty, Regent Street, London W1, call 0171 734 1234 for branches. Peter Jones, Sloane Square, London SW1; call 0171-730 3434 for nearest John Lewis branch. Porth Innovations Factory Shop, Cae Mawr Industrial Estate, Treorchy, Rhondda, Mid Glamorgan (01443 441736). Selfridges, Oxford St, London W1 (0171 629 1234). Woolworths; call 0171 262 1222 for branches.

Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, London E2 (0171-739 9893); Tues-Sat 10am- 5pm, Sun 2pm-5pm.