Tuesday 21 February 2017

How Christmas trees became the latest social media status symbol

Tradition has turned to competition, says our reporter, who admits to Instragamming her festive decorations

Published 10/12/2015 | 02:30

Colleen Rooney Instagramming her Christmas tree.
Colleen Rooney Instagramming her Christmas tree.
Oh Christmas tree: Vicki Notaro. Photo: Fergal Phillips.
An example from Rate My Xmas Tree from Facebook.
An tree from Rate My Xmas Tree on Facebook.
Another example of a tree from Rate My Xmas Tree on Facebook.

Ah, Christmas. The season of good will toward men, stuffing turkeys, decking halls, and making sure your festive decorations are fit for Facebook. Wait, what? That's not how it goes. Or at least, it never used to be.

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Over the past couple of weeks, it's been impossible to escape the endless photos of Christmas trees, complete with smug owners, cluttering up your social media feed, sparking instant festive anxiety - is your tree big enough? Bushy enough? Green enough? Are your decorations trendy enough? What do you mean you don't even have a tree yet?

Oh Christmas tree: Vicki Notaro. Photo: Fergal Phillips.
Oh Christmas tree: Vicki Notaro. Photo: Fergal Phillips.

As ever, the celebs are leading the way: Kylie Jenner, Coleen Rooney and our own Celia Holman Lee have already been posting images of their fabulous festive spruces - and in Coleen's case, drawing criticism from followers for being a bit OTT.

The most extravagant person of them all, Kris Jenner, has yet to post a picture of her enormous tree but if the last few years are anything to go by, we'll soon be seeing her two-storey sapling online.

Although while we might expect A-listers to have more impressive decorations than us, it can rankle when our acquaintances outdo our own displays. Catching sight of Mary down the road's expertly decorated shrub, and the mini tree she has in the kitchen might indeed result in a case of the green-eyed monster.

This is the era of the selfie, the time of filters and perfecting apps designed to make our photos look even more fabulous, and the dawn of the new age of digital interactions. These three things have combined to make the average person feel that if life isn't photogenic, it's not really worth living.

Perhaps this tree-boasting is just an extension of every other social media trend. Halloween is already an exercise in online one-upmanship, the costumes more outlandish every year. Why would Christmas be any different? After all, a New York Times survey last year revealed interesting data as to why we like to share online - 69pc of respondents said that it "allows them to feel more involved in the world". We post pictures of our cute kids, adorable animals and delicious dinners, so why not our decorations?

You could say that we share photos of our trees to spread the Christmas spirit rather than invoke envy and to take pride in our handiwork.

Another example of a tree from Rate My Xmas Tree on Facebook.
Another example of a tree from Rate My Xmas Tree on Facebook.

But I remember a time when the tree was something for you and your family alone. Now it's another tool in the arsenal of social media braggers.

My own Facebook feed is full of smiling children looking angelic in front of the Christmas tree - and even though I know better, I'm likely to believe this picture perfect depiction of family life.

I'm as guilty as the next person. I took a picture of my tree and posted it online almost automatically. In fact, I Snapchatted the process of unwrapping my decorations. It feels ridiculous to admit that in black and white, but seemed perfectly normal in the context of the app and what other users share.

My tree itself isn't very impressive - I think we bought it in Tesco for about e20 a couple of years ago - but the baubles we hang on it are.

My fiancé and I collect trinkets for the tree from every far-flung destination we visit, so mine is covered in memories of trips to Boston, New York, New Orleans, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and um, Kerry.

We have decorations celebrating our first year living together, our two little dogs and even our recent engagement. I have some pieces on the tree from my own childhood given to me by my parents when leaving home. But why don't I just keep this to myself? Is sharing it diluting the meaning, or spreading the joy?

An tree from Rate My Xmas Tree on Facebook.
An tree from Rate My Xmas Tree on Facebook.

I'm guilty of editing too. If you look at the Instagram of my tree, you'll notice it's from a very specific angle - the one where you can't see the two push bikes crammed in behind it. It's also a total party in the front and pretty bare in the back. We live in a small cottage near the city centre, so space is a premium. But it suits us.

I guess I share my own tree because I personally find the intimate details of other people's lives interesting. But am I, on some unconscious level, really trying to brag about my lovely life? The very notion feels like the opposite of what Christmas should be about.

Is the tree yet another status symbol in the modern age? Have we watched too many episodes of Kirstie's Homemade Christmas and been brainwashed by crafting?

Martin Ryan, 38, from Perrystown in Dublin, is the man behind the Rate My Xmas Tree Facebook page, the sole purpose of which is for people to upload pictures of their own tree and have them scored. "It started out just as a bit of laugh three years ago among mates, but people seemed to like it," he explains. "People post photos to the page, and they're scored on certain critera, like colour, cut, style, decoration, 'awesomeness' and Feng Shui."

Martin is adamant it's all just one big joke, but hits the nail on the head in one post on the page - "It's that time of year again. The real power behind decorating the tree and winning the most prestigious of awards. Envy!!!!"

An example from Rate My Xmas Tree from Facebook.
An example from Rate My Xmas Tree from Facebook.

And even though the page was created with tongue firmly in cheek, people still try to outdo one another. Is Martin just giving a voice to a modern festive fear - is my tree actually a bit crap? But has the quest for arboreal perfection gone too far? Are parents really keeping their kids away from the very tree Santa leaves presents under in order to make it Instagram worthy?

"I'm in charge of the big tree and my children get the 3ft fibreoptic tree in the hall," says mother of three Liz O'Connor, 30, from Kildare. "It's a compromise! I just can't stand the cluttered look. My theme is red and gold and I like it evenly spaced. But I give them a few small baubles and the decorations they've made at Santa's workshop."

However, Liz says it's less about what other people think online and more about the fact that she has to look at the decorations herself. "It's a bit of both really, but more that I'm a bit OCD about the tree. My husband decorates the entire house in the time I spend on it."

A couple of mothers I know abide by the rule of allowing the kids to decorate, and then rearranging it once they've gone to bed - is the "after" picture is taken only once this is done? I think so.

The fact is, the sharing culture we've developed isn't going anywhere. As long as there are social networks, people will post pictures because that's what humans do nowadays. And when it comes to Christmas, surely pictures of our trees aren't as gruesome as say, photos of the presents we give and receive? Perhaps we'll know that the human race has truly trumped itself when gift selfies become de rigeur. I give it a year.

Irish Independent

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