How fir can you go?

Christmas trees are seriously fashionable, says Jane Furnival
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Firs are in fashion. We're in the grip of the greatest nostalgia for Christmas trees since Christmas was in-vented. Bejewelled branches are everywhere. Liberty's of London has sold out of tassels at pounds 2 each. People will pay florists pounds 80 for a day's lesson in dressing a tree.

We like to think of our trees as being intrinsic to the spirit of Christmas. In fact, no other age bothered so much about them. Homes and interiors magazines for the last century have few.

Tree decorations instantly sum up the spirit of the age. To see a society's priorities, look at the top first. The patriotic Victorians had a Union Jack. Now the Empire has gone, we turn to angels and fairies.

The Americans always stuck to gold, in the form of gilded fruit. In 1897 a former railway worker, James Clements, decked his tree with $70,000- worth of gold nuggets he had found in the Klondike gold rush.

The first recorded Christmas tree just had paper roses. Scholars blah about pagan nature-revival rites, but in fact it started at an office party in Latvia, around 1510. The lads of the merchants' guild cut down an evergreen, decked it with roses, danced round it in the marketplace, then set fire to it.

After that, fun firs (though not fun fires) caught on, prompting a serious crackdown in 16th-century Alsace: "No one shall have more than one Christmas tree or more than eight shoe lengths." In good EC tradition, this was ignored.

Tree decor was religious. The rose for the Virgin Mary. Coloured wafers for holy communion with Christ. In time, these became gilded fruit, to be eaten on Twelfth Night.

The German-cum-British royal family introduced trees here. In 1848 the Illustrated London News carried a sketch of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in front of a tree decorated, as he recalled it from his childhood, with candles and baskets of sweets.

Religious roses and wafers were out of the window for the acquisitive, Protestant Victorians. Their desired effect was Tutankhamun's Tomb meets the Generation Game. All human life was hung on that tree, from beads to the kitchen sink.

Dickens is the usual suspect for creating Christmas, but his only mention of trees, in a magazine article of 1850, describes someone else's, not his own. It had "dolls, real watches, tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks wonderfully made in tin... fiddles and drums, guns, swords..."

Christmas tree candle accidents were few, but tragic enough to make a few concerned eccentrics consider inventing electric fairy lights. Mazda got there first with elaborate strings of coloured Santa faces, more elaborate, contrived and exciting than today's.

In 1900, the Vanderbilts showed off theirs on a 30ft tree, which cost $200 a day in electricity. Not a success. By 1905 they had returned to the latest "drip proof" candles.

With the 1914 war, we naturally turned our back on German decorations. Their thin, solemn Santa was replaced by a fat smiling American version on paper. The thrifty saved last year's tree, bare of needles, and re- erected it next year, cloaked in white cotton quilted wadding to represent snow.

After the war, silhouettes were slimmer. In the Thirties, the convenience Christmas arrived in the form of a tinsel tree with fold-down branches and built-in glass icicle decorations.

But the movies reintroduced glamorous, schmaltzy and highly commercial Christmases. Tinsel trees matched the glitzy diamonds worn by the stars.

In 1938, Christmas was licensed to Disney. Children were desperate to see the new film, Snow White, then take home the tree baubles to match. And these were baubles shaped like the airships, labelled Graff Zeppelin.

The Second World War brought austerity. The Geffrye Museum in London has a tiny tinsel tree to be folded up and carried to the air raid shelter during the Blitz. You couldn't get silver or gold paint, so glass balls were clear, or painted with stripes.

But by the Fifties, brash, acid colours were in. "Space has become a spiritual necessity: remove non-essentials from your room," intoned House and Garden magazine in 1950. Glass balls were quasi-scientific, with conical indentations, like hollow tummies. Smaller beads were wired together like molecular models. Nylon threads covered polystyrene scientific balls.

The writer SJ Perelman was driven insane by trying out the suggestions of a Mr Lester Gaba in Mademoiselle magazine: "Dip tips of twisted cotton strips into India ink and trim your tree entirely with `ermine tails'. Pin a fresh mauve orchid to the top."

The dissenting voice of Cool was always around. The higher your class, the less your tree. In 1875, the Aesthetes might hang a few unlit, tiny paper lanterns on some bare twigs in a dark corner of the room. In 1960, House and Garden shows decorator Nancy Lancaster's Bond Street flat at Christmas. You can just see a shred of tinsel cowering in a pot plant.

The Sixties proved to be a DIY-fest. When we had finished papering over original features, there were modern trees to make, to match your home- licked paperchains. Try the bachelor tree, made by impaling hundreds of cigarettes on wires stuck in florist's foam in a vase. Or use marshmallows. "Colour-stressed titbits" are the things to stick on the tree, as Ideal Homes put it. We struggled with eggshells on barley stalks, stars made of drinking straws, and holly painted white and stuck into lumps of Plasticine.

By 1970, the Pill was in, and children and Christmas trees weren't. You might stick a star on top of your giant cactus, paint honesty leaves red, poke some twigs into a milk bottle or drape some tinsel over bendy floor lights drooping over the table.

Suddenly came the Eighties, designer doo-dahs, and trees power-dressed to match the pussycat-bowed blouses of successful women everywhere. "Single colour themes," advised Homes and Gardens, "are more elegant". White iridescent trees gave way to natural-looking artificial ones with gold baubles tied with swathes of ribbon and bows.

Fairy lights caught disco fever, and started repeating on us like the onion soup that we ate in chic little bistros.

Banks did up their reception areas in tartan to emphasise the Scottish values of thrift and reliability, and trees matched. People paid hundreds of pounds for a pair of round-clipped box trees to put beside the coal- effect gas fire.

Then the recession struck. A late-Eighties best-seller was an ironic cardboard cut-out tree, complete with printed-on decorations. Meanwhile the "haves" bought expensive designer-decorated trees that looked quite ordinary until you noticed Vivienne Westwood on the label.

What of the Nineties? Minimalists buy bare-branched trees like witches' broomsticks. Ecologists stick outdoor lights and balls of bird food on the growing tree in the front garden.

But when we're honest, most of us prefer a family tree, a marker of real tradition, with faded tinsel, the candles your granny kept in their old clips and children's hand-made decorations. The white-painted holly in Plasticine has bypassed naff and become nostalgia.

The Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, London E2 8EA, has a small exhibition of Christmas trees through the ages (recorded information, 0171-739 8543).

Six of the best... for a well decorated 1996

It's time to make a trip to the loft or garage, or under the stairs, to drag out last year's Christmas decorations. Having to buy new ones can be annoying, but it's comforting to know that everyone has the same problem. Either you force yourself to admit how tatty they're beginning to look - or you find yourself gazing stubbornly at the same old baubles, year in, year out.

We feature alternatives to the traditional red and green balls - from hand-made Russian diamonds to mirrored disco balls. Travel further afield, think globally, and you won't need much else - maybe some fairy lights, but no tinsel.

1Pink-and-red-patterned papier mache ball, pounds 2.75; orange-and-yellow papier mache ball, also pounds 2.75; both from Habitat, 196 Tottenham Court Road, London W1 and branches nationwide (0645 334433).

2 Orange Moroccan lantern, pounds 11; blue lantern, pounds 15; from Carden Cunietti, 83 Westbourne Park Road, London W2 (0171-229 8559).

3Pink feather ball, pounds 2.99; disco ball, pounds 1.99. Paperchase, 213 Tottenham Court Road, London W1 and nationwide (0171-5800 8496).

4 Ceramic lime-green lantern, pounds 8.25; pink ceramic flat pendant, pounds 5.95 both from Designers Guild, 267-271 King's Road, London SW1 (0171-351 5775).

5 Red embroidered heart, pounds 3.50; purple embroidered ball, pounds 8.50; from Liberty, 214-220 Regent Street, London W1 (0171-730 1234).

6 Gold satin thread Russian drop, pounds 3.99; white and gold Russian diamond, pounds 3.99; from Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1 (0171-629 1234).