Christmas has come early this year. Not in the sense that it moves around like Easter, but that leaves are still on the trees and it feels like October. Nobody can believe that Christmas is just around the corner. No sound of sleigh bells, no biblical sheep in the bleak midwinter. I worry that global warming means that the snowy Suffolk Christmas is over, and now we will have Texas Christmas like my friend Ben McGuffey. On Christmas Eve, he turns the air conditioner up high so that the house will be cold enough to light a roaring fire on Christmas Day.
Although White Christmas may be confined to Scotland and literature, I see the sequel: the Green Christmas. Last week, a farmer from Lincolnshire called Ned came to see me about selling his Christmas trees in our Farmers’ Market. I told him we already had a tree stall. ‘Are they organic Christmas trees?’ he asked. While I was digesting the idea of a Christmas tree that’s safe to eat, he said: ‘Because mine are all organic.’ I hemmed and hawed. ‘Well, we also have a stall that sells live trees with roots and soil so they can be planted later outside.’
He looked sad. ‘I hate to tell you, but that’s a cruel thing to do.’ Gazing into the distance at our ancient woodland, he explained that, what with the root loss on digging and the high temperature and low humidity of the indoor environment, the tree’s health suffers badly. The survival rate is low. ‘If you have a living tree, don’t keep it inside for more than three days at most. Central heating and log fires bring them out of dormancy, and then they have little or no protection when they are put outside in the midwinter cold.’
Dotted around this farm are trees that once were covered in lights and surrounded with presents. Now they soar past the telephone wires and, frankly, I wish they were in Norway where they belong, and not symbols of cruelty to trees.
I wondered out loud if artificial trees meant that no living thing would have to die for Christmas. Ned looked mournful. ‘Artificial trees are made from PVC which is stabilised with lead. It can never be recycled and ends up in a landfill.’ He pulled out pictures of his Christmas-tree farm with signs that read ‘Real trees reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while growing’ and ‘Real trees: a good habitat for wildlife’. He adds: ‘Problem is, tree farmers use a heavy input of pesticides to grow the trees.’
Like free-range chickens allowed to roam into adolescence, Ned’s trees aren’t harvested until they are 10 years old. He only grows species of fir because they don’t shed when they dry out, have good foliage colour and smell like Christmas.
Most of Ned’s trees will go to London. He’s trying to convince councils to create a service where, for £10, the trees would be collected after Christmas, the needles hoovered up and the trees made into mulch. Some of the proceeds would go to plant trees in London. It hasn’t happened yet, but he believes it’s what folks want. As he pulls out of the farmyard, I ask what kind of tree he has at Christmas. ‘I choose the sad ones. The trees that are kinda crooked and nobody wants. Then we decorate it and make it beautiful.’
‘You put lights on it?’ ‘Nah, trees don’t need that. Just candles that we light on Christmas Eve.’ As he drives off, I have a vision of Little House on the Prairie, where the mice come out at night to nibble the strings of popcorn on the tree. Snow is gently falling and in the distance is the tinkle of sleigh bells.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 7 December, 2006.