Death of the Christmas Tree?


In his final column of the year, Thomas de Freitas questions whether Christmas remains a season of merriment and celebration

Soon, a decorated tree may not be as synonymous with the festive season as it is today. Forces are conspiring to make the tree a symbol of Christmases past, not present.

Trees across Britain are falling victim to Current Season Needle Necrosis (CSNN), a disease which causes needles to fall off in the summer months. CSNN is similar to apple scab, a fungus causing needles in Nordmann firs to go brown in July and August and which destroyed 25 million Dutch elm trees in the seventies and eighties.

In fact, it is not just our pine trees at risk. The chalara fraxinea fungus has, this year, devastated ash trees across mainland Europe, all but wiping out common species in Denmark, Poland and Lithuania. It has now hit Britain: 98,000 ashes have been destroyed in the last couple of months and a complete ban imposed on ash imports. With 80 million ash trees in the UK – that’s 30% of our tree population – at risk, inability to control the spread of this fungus could cost the £10 billion timber economy dearly.

Of perhaps more concern this Christmas are rising energy bills across UK households. British Gas has raised fuel charges by an average of 6% – adding £80 to the average annual duel fuel bill; Npower has increased the price of gas by an average of 8.8% and electricity by 9.1%; and SSE has raised prices by an average of 9%.

According to government-sponsored watchdog Consumer Focus, over six million households in England already plan to cut back on their heating this winter, with a YouGov poll further finding that rising energy prices represent the biggest perceived threat to household finances out of six options including unemployment and inflation. Adding to this unwelcome news is the fact that British Gas reported a £345m profit in the first half of this year, a bitter pill to swallow when many families face a Christmas without the money to afford sufficient heating and hot water – not to mention lights on their tree.

For the traditionalists among us, some might argue that the decline of the real Christmas tree in favour of a fake one already represents the death of a ‘proper’ Christmas. Harry Brightwell, secretary of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA), agrees. With less than one in five British households intending to buy a real tree this year[1], Brightwell comments, “If people aren’t buying a real tree, they are missing out on a real Christmas…

If you get a fake tree, you’re giving up on Christmas”. Moreover, whilst real trees are grown in Britain, the majority of artificial trees are made in China. With a still difficult jobs market, giving up on real trees is giving up on British industry and employment.

I wonder if this decline of tradition in favour of out-the-box convenience is symptomatic of the times we live in?

For many, life is a tale of value rather than quality; being able to pack away an artificial tree for use again and again is value personified. A tree in the attic can be put up and assembled within minutes of getting it down versus a trip to the wood or garden centre, time spent assessing size and evenness, and the precarious balancing act of getting a real tree to sit correctly in its stand. When we are short on time and money, convenience rules.

This outlook extends to our gift giving. According to an HSBC study conducted in 2011, the average Brit spends £560 during the festive period. With many people unable to budget for the increased spending throughout the year, this adds huge strain to December paychecks. No wonder so many people are enticed by ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes in order to afford their Christmas presents.

But should retailers be encouraging this culture of instant gratification if we cannot actually afford the gifts outright? Does spending lots of money at Christmas – money many don’t have – actually make us happy, especially when we spend the rest of the year which follows paying off the debts accumulated? Certainly, gift giving is great fun, receiving arguably more so, but why should we expect to get presents of great expense just because we covet them and it’s Christmas? The 25th December is about so much more than debts.

We live in a world obsessed with consumerism. The latest products are thrust in our faces on television and online, whilst every high street shop entices us inside with bright lights, glistening products and tempting offers. Many of us are unable to resist – hence the rise of payday loans, so called quick fixes enabling people to borrow money instantaneously for a prescribed period of time. At Christmas, when spending increases artificially for a few weeks, they can seem like a God-send.

The reality, however, is far from this. The convenience of being able to access extra money, fast, is a problematic concept when one considers that lenders do not assess whether the person taking the loan out can actually pay it back. This could potentially leave people in dire financial straits, turning an expected debt of hundreds into one of thousands.

And, let’s face it, people are only going to be taking out these kind of loans when they have already hit zero in their current account, riddling them with ever-increasing debts and a financial headache lasting until next Christmas. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that surely doesn’t fill people with festive cheer.

One question thus remains: is consumerism destroying Christmas?

As I sit here tucking into a mince pie and glass of mulled wine, ready to throw some shapes on the dancefloor at Communicate’s Christmas party, it would be rather Scrooge-like of me to deny the enjoyment of the festive season. We have a beautiful tree brightening up the office, stockings stuffed with chocolate for staff, and are excited about our Secret Santa gift giving. Moreover, all of us are looking forward to a well deserved break with family and friends.

Christmas brings cheer to the City and beyond – I for one intend to make the most of it!

Season’s greetings one and all.

[1] Which? report