Spruce up for Christmas
Eleanor Flegg with the best in design and decoration for your home
Let's hear it for Saint Boniface. Not only did he bring us the Christmas tree but he also defeated Thor the God of Thunder along the way. The legend was brilliantly retold in Henry van Dyke's short story 'The First Christmas Tree' (1897) - although I'm imagining it with Thor played by Chris Hemsworth!
It's the day before Christmas, 722 AD, and the gnarly adventuring priest is travelling through Germany, "in love with hardship and danger".
On a trail through the forest, he happens on a group of pagan villagers about to sacrifice a small child to the vengeful Thor. Boniface raises his crozier and proclaims: "Here is the Thunder Oak, and here the cross of Christ shall break the hammer of the false god, Thor." Short version: the stone hammer is smashed, the child is saved, and the pagans converted.
Amid the ruins of the Thunder Oak, Boniface spots a "young fir-tree, standing straight and green, with its top pointing toward the stars". He tells the villagers to take it as a symbol of their new worship. They bring the little tree home, kindling lights among the branches "until it seemed to be tangled full of fire-flies" and "the sweet odour of the balsam filled the house".
Fast forward to 2017 and the Christmas tree is still the star of the show. In most festive decorative schemes, the tree is the celebrity and all the other elements revolve around it. That's why it's important to give it the time and attention it needs.
"It's all about having the basics right," says Mary Ring Mulcahy, freelance Christmas tree dresser. (Best job ever!)
If you're using a real tree, the first step is to open it up properly. She recommends that you make the branches look as full as possible by gently fluffing out the needles of each individual twig. With an artificial tree: "make sure that the trunk is well hidden by lifting the branches up and down, alternating the direction of every second branch as you go." A fake-looking trunk will give the game away. Artificial Christmas trees from Meadows & Byrne, one of Mulcahy's main clients, range from €189 to €369, depending on height and diameter.
The next step is to position the tree. "Pull it out from the wall to give it a sense of pride and don't be afraid to move the furniture," she says.
In her own house, Mulcahy has three Christmas trees: a traditional one, a peacock-themed one, and an upside-down one! Nutty though it sounds, an inverted Christmas tree can look impressive, either suspended from the ceiling or on a purpose-built frame.
There's a persistent online rumour that upside-down Christmas trees were an old Polish tradition. Fake news! "If you hung a real tree upside-down, the branches would fold up like an umbrella," Mulcahy says.
According to Robert Strybel of the Polish Art Centre, whole Christmas trees were never suspended from the ceiling. But there is a grain of truth in the rumour. In the 19th century, it was customary to decorate peasant cottages with an evergreen branch or the point of pine tree, hung point-side-down from the rafters.
It's more likely that the upside-down Christmas tree was invented by American retailers who wanted to display their baubles while keeping the floor space clear. Most likely, they used the myth of the East European tradition to give their wares an aura of authenticity. In any case, you can buy a pre-lit artificial upside-down Christmas tree from Beechdale for €170.
Once you've decided which way is up, add the lights. "Lights can create a lovely sense of depth but you need a bit of patience," Mulcahy says. Avoid the common error of wrapping the lights around the tree. Instead, start at the bottom of the tree and work your way up, weaving the lights in and out of each branch. She recommends warm white LEDs and suggests that the average 7ft Christmas tree will need two sets of 360 lights.
Then you can start to decorate. "I always focus on making the bottom on the tree very full by placing baubles all the way along the bottom branches from the inside out," she says. "Use cheap decorations to bulk out the tree and then go and buy your special pieces." If Ikea is handy for you, a set of 35 variegated baubles costs €12. Otherwise, most DIY stores sell baubles by the tub. To create a sense of volume, tie differently coloured baubles together with florist's wire and finish off the bunch with a ribbon.
If you need inspiration, any Christmas retailer worth their salt will have put together a range of themes to guide you. These are known as "Christmas stories" but have nothing to do with Bethlehem and the Three Wise Men. They're basically co-ordinating seasonal colour schemes.
Some are exotic to the point of absurdity. One of the Christmas stories at John Lewis, Tales of the Maharaja, has "vibrant washes of teal, pink and orange" providing a "vivid backdrop for opulent finishing touches like sequins, feathers and jewels" while "lions, tigers and monkeys take the place of reindeer, robins and snowmen". At House of Fraser, the Deco Luxe look includes "palms, pineapples and baubles gilded, glazed and dipped in more than a sprinkling of glitter". Someone had fun dreaming those up!
Other Christmas stories are more traditional. "Red trumps everything - end of," says Helen Coughlan of Meadows & Byrne. "We always do an unapologetic classic red Christmas." The other Christmas stories at Meadows & Byrne include Celestial (sophisticated and tonal with silvers and golds), and Nordic Lodge (birch wood, snow flock and pewter). "It's like Nordic goes opulent," Coughlan explains. "The Scandi look needed a break."
Taking the lead from the style that you've used to decorate your tree, Coughlan suggests that you extend the look into the rest of the house. If, for example, you're going with a classic red theme, carry it through to the sofa with a Moss Stitch red cushion (€40) and a pinecone and berry wreath (€40). For table settings, she's a big fan of Mini Knit Stockings (€24 for a set of four) - a tiny sock that holds your knife and fork - with Holly Berry placemats (€24 for a set of four). Whatever else happens, at least you'll look the part.
See meadowsandbyrne.com, ikea.ie, beechwood.ie, houseoffraser.co.uk, ie.johnlewis.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.