Say it with designer baubles. Say it with a plastic Santa Claus. But however you do your festive decor, it won't be only presents you end up giving away. By Eleanor Bailey; 'Whatever happens, you're stuffed'
Some do it with bits of wood; some have red balls, some like it sweetly smelling and there are even the odd few who do it all by themselves. Christmas decorations: the annual group torture wherein it doesn't matter what you have or what you do, you will always end up with a living-room that looks (a) ridiculous and (b) the same as everybody else's. For overdisplay cruelly reveals your cliche-ridden personality. And, like the Christmas turkey, whatever happens you're stuffed.

Everybody wants something different. This year ''different'' is available in two varieties; disco and wood. The disco fans have bought their decorations from Paperchase. Often students and/or clubbers, they love Paperchase's mirror glitter balls which they hang all over their house (especially in the bathroom since that's wacky). That Paperchase called a page of its catalogue ''mixin decs'' is great because it is like having a disco in the living-room. The Disco babes love the camp hearts with wings and cherubs because gay is dead cool. And as a sop to over- exuberance Paperchase also offers baubles in papier mache, useful when the last spin of Do You want To Be In My Gang? gets out of hand.

Unlike the disco babes for whom subtle is anathema, for the Babes On Wood taste is all. These are the over thirties who are trying to forget their matt black Eighties phase by going mad on natural fibres. They have Egyptian cotton duvet covers and barely there Christmas decorations. The General Trading Company, in London's Sloane Street, is the spot for twig trees (which last for ever but will be too unfashionable to reuse), raffia pears and apples that are doing terribly well and a bizarre twig ''coil'' that hangs from the ceiling. Heal's has real cactus decorations and Good Housekeeping recommends gilding your own pears.

Babes on Wood are also big on smells. They are likely to get their fresh foliage from Paula Pryke (florist to Donna Karan and Katharine Hamnett) Paula says: "We always use fruits and nuts and cinnamon and cloves in our Christmas garlands which perfumes the house beautifully. But as a different thing this year we have been using dried quince slices." The conical fruit and nut cones are very popular. Pryke describes her clients as the kind of people who like eucalyptus and Cupressus garlands to wrap around the banisters in their chalets. Minimalists with a wood allergy might just stretch to the flamboyance of white lights and angel hair, nothing else and for heaven's sake no colour, it might clash with their black wardrobe.

To be really different, of course, you need to outspend the competition. Rich people can spend unlimited amounts on candles and lights . Lucy Ellworthy, decoration and shopping editor of House and Garden recommends Anne Severine Liotard sculptured candles that start from pounds 188. "They are Brancusiesque" says Stuart Paterson, marketing manager of the General Trading Company. ''They are like big cheeses or pyramids that zigzag and are kind of modular." The best thing is that no one has a clue what you're talking about.

At Liberty's, Diana Glaston, aged 40, has just spent pounds 45 on baubles. ''Gosh,'' she says handing over her Gold American Express card. Her gold leaf and bronze baubles come with cleaning instructions - natch dry clean only. Selfridges, too, sees customers who want decadence. Alex Smith, one of the Christmas Hall managers, explains: "We have gone for an Imperial Russian theme this year. A lot of our customers are in their mid- to late- thirties want to do something different and better for their children than they had in their childhood." This category of big spenders can be defined as the Traumatic Childhood Recovery Group. For the world- weary childless contemporary couple, (mostly from Islington) there is the Conran Shop. For them, red and gold just doesn't make enough of a statement. They force-read Irvine Welsh and this year's Christmas decorations are tin vegetables which they hang from a foil tree. Pumpkins are particular favourite being orange (classic urban shade). Contemporary couple are allowed to buy silk coloured balls in turquoise and lime from the Designer's Guild as they are the only tree decoration recommended by House and Garden's Lucy Ellworthy who admits to being "sick to death of the same old Christmas decorations".

Even wearier are the Angry Solstice celebrants who despise the whole charade. "I laugh at anybody who spends money on decorations" says Jonathan Tucker-Ball, a sculptor living in west Hampstead. "I'm vehemently against filling the house with bits of the forest. I would recommend going out into nature instead and enjoying the fairies. They are at their most abundant at the time of the winter solstice.'' Don't confuse the solstice dropouts with the capitalist dropouts who shun wasteful, unecological third world exploitation for their own beautiful beads and wood masks which they were conned into believing were traditional Tanzanian Christmas decorations on a recent visit. These people, who normally inhabit Brixton, dress in all the colours of the rainbow anyway and always have bells jingling from the doorways so Christmas hardly makes a difference.

Possibly the most irritating people are the do-it-yerselfers. These are the types who want to bake their own bread, think writing a poem instead of sending a card is a good idea and who turn their noses up at shop bought pasta sauces yet still buy Joanna Trollope novels and dream of owning an Aga. The D-I-Yers can be subdivided into the dos and the don'ts. The don'ts buy spray paint, pick their holly leaves, save their tin foil and cotton wool but never quite get round to making the stuff. Consequently, the week before Christmas they end up rifling through the remnants bin in W H Smith. Their decorations consist of some mangy tinsel draped round a lightshade. Also failing to make their cards they are forced, last minute, to buy the ones with corrugated edges, Victorian snow scenes in purple and Peace in huge gold letters. The do's get everything done weeks ahead of time. Their children, of course, would much rather watch Baywatch and get their decorations from Habitat, but no, the DIY doers insist on collecting fir cones to spray gold (the first step to hard drugs incidentally). They come out with noxious pap about the "true spirit of Christmas" which means playing Christmas carols on acoustic guitar and going to midnight mass (they respect all religious beliefs but feel the greatest affinity with Buddhism).

Happily the sanctimonious D-I-Y doers' homemade Christmas wreath falls apart with a few vicious jabs from the postman before any of the shop bought ones which are much better quality since they're made in China. Made in China takes us neatly to the Woolworths' customer. Woolworths, for many people, is Christmas. Getting its exclusive nativity scene made in China caused cultural confusion. Mary arrived in Britain, not on a donkey, but bald and with no head dress. Woolworths' typical customer is a C2 woman, aged 25-40, with children, who lights up half her street on 1 December, vying for the biggest plastic candle arch of the gaudiest, noisiest lights around her four Christmas trees. And now she can add Christmas lights that sing Jingle Bells (thankfully the volume can be adjusted).

Georgina Coleman, Christmas buyer for Woolworths, says customers see decorations as a mission. "People come in and then come back again and again." Ms Coleman is responsible for Woolworths' exclusive, the cult Funky Fir - a parachute silk Christmas tree that dances around the carpet. She also invented the Woolworths' cutesy Christmas village, Twinkly Down. The sprawling model offers more scope for collecting than the traditional nativity scene with its pernicious restrictions on one baby, a manger and three kings. Woolworths' people believe that Christmas is for ''the child in all of us'' (even if their children are cringing with embarrassment behind the sofa). They sensibly shun all this natural nonsense in trees and are happy with fake and green - the shop apparently sells enough to go from London to Liverpool.

Old people of course go for the thrifty approach. The make-do-and-mend generation are unimpressed with the pounds 5 a sheet, Tibetan hair shirt wrapping paper favoured by their Fulham friends. "Generally the older people like to re-use last year's paper" admits Ms Coleman. In fact, that's luxury. My grandmother uses brown paper bags held together by the strips leftover from sheets of stamps in the Post Office. New decorations? Not for the make-do-and-menders. In the search for Britain's oldest Christmas tree Woolworths has found a man still bringing out the tree that he's had for 72 years complete with original baubles. ''It's looking pretty frazzled'' admitted Mike McGann, of Woolworths. But at least no one can accuse him of faddism.


Shelley von Strunckel, astrologer: Our Victorian flat demands opulence, so we'll have lush garlands draped over the fireplaces, lots of gilt grapes and apples, and gold and silver ornaments on a 12-foot tree, all the proceeds of a pre-dawn raid on Covent Garden flower market.

Andrew Logan, sculptor: I have a traditional tree, except mine is 20 feet tall, and I suspend it from the glass ceiling in my home with ropes and wires. I hang it with decorations I've bought from my travels around the world: this summer I bought wonderful wooden Father Christmasses from a monastery outside Moscow. You can spin the tree round like a mobile, and it's a wonderful sight. I also put Christmas hats on my sculptures.

Antonio Carluccio, restaurateur:

Everything is natural. We live in the country and we collect bits and pieces of pine and holly with berries, and my wife Priscilla always makes a wreath for the front door. We have a tree with real candles - we have to keep a big eye on them, but they are much nicer than electric lights. We also hang the tree with home-made biscuits, candied oranges and tangerines for the grandchildren - things they can eat.

Fiona Watson, Editor, Homes and Gardens: One of the best trees I ever saw was in a ski lodge in Colorado, and I've copied the idea. It had gypsophila wired to the branches of the tree so it looked like falling snow. The delicate white flowers fill out the shape of the tree and look very pretty with little white lights behind them. It's rather nice to put fresh flowers on the tree if you are not going to have it up for long, and it's easy to do.

Mary Quant, designer: Outside, a Christmas tree covered with tiny diamond lights, planted in a big wooden tub full of hyacinth bulbs with their green tops shooting up. Logs piled high against the wall, a wooden dog- cart loaded with presents and lit with hurricane lamps. Inside: A huge log fire, ilex branches covered in red berries, laced with red roses and pussy willow from The Flower Van outside the Conran shop. Two very large black Briard dogs with red-ribbon collars.

Stewart Lee of the comedy partnership Lee and Herring: I'll decorate my house with inflatable models of Richard Dawkins, the scientist who has rendered belief in the Christian fable irrelevant, and I'll decorate my tree with massive replicas of DNA chains. Next to the toilet, there is a crib scene identical to the ones in churches, except that in the manger there is a small shrivelled rotten potato with 'Jesus does not exist' written on it in biro.