The Search For Our Perfect Christmas Tree – On A Budget!

Every year in the last weeks of November I begin to gather my necessary weapons to secure the most beautiful Christmassy Christmas tree to complete my festive decorating. Some of my friends who have pretty, but fake, trees cannot understand my obsession with having a real tree every year – but I am addicted. I don’t mind the pine needles dropping, or finding them in my car boot for the rest of the year, or the difficulty getting a real tree up the stairs into our flat every year – but isn’t that what big strong husbands are for? When we find the perfect tree, and smell it’s piney smell and gaze upon its lit branches adorned with baubles, we are both so happy. If I could have no other decorations I would have that tree.

Maybe it’s because I always had a real tree as a child. We used to have the original pine trees, you know the Norway Spruce traditional ones that really drop the needles but have a super strong scent. My dad would bring home the tree, find the tree bucket and fill it with bricks to hold the tree in place and we would all gather to decorate the tree. Some years we actually had a live tree which was planted back in the garden and eventually I went with my parents to help choose the tree & learn all the tricks of the search. When we had more money my parents would buy a Nordman Fir – better for needle dropping – but never from a garden centre. They seemed to know all the out of the way Christmas tree farms or brickyards that sell trees, or trees at the side of the road where for a few weeks a year lovely trees and mistletoe would appear.

Even now I like to & help my mum decorate her home and feel like a child again. I’m sure that decorating wasn’t always a chocolate box Christmas scene with my younger two brothers, but in my memories the Christmas music was on, the mince pies were in the oven and every year we got out all the decorations my mum had carefully preserved through the years. Every handcrafted decoration made by all of us from Reception up to Year 6 at school, even the ones that were pretty much just shiny paper on a loop but to Mum they are worth much more than anything from the shops. The robins that are older than my 30+ years that wrap their wire feet around branches. The old fashioned coloured lights in a loop that I have now inherited and love just because they remind me of being a child at Christmas. And of course Mum’s Christmas poem that she wrote for us. All of these things – and especially the tree – made Christmas my favourite time of year.

Fast forward to now and I keep the real tree joy alive in my own home. My husband always had a fake tree growing up and he was slightly sceptical about having a real tree the first year we had our own home, but when we went shopping for our first tree and he smelled the smell, he took to it like a duck to water. We developed our rules together: the tree must be taller than me plus the tree stand, so 5ft 5 at least, it must have layers, it must have a round bottom and taper up, with each layer being less wide than the last, it must be even and, finally, we must go tree hunting in the daylight. That might seem obvious but one year we went to Homebase because we had a voucher but ended up looking for trees in the rain & the dark by torchlight – needless to say the tree we bought wasn’t the best. What we really should have added to the list is to make sure that the base of the tree is a regular size and shape, smaller than 9cm in diameter – but more of that later!

To try to keep costs down, I sign up to newsletters from all the local garden centres and DIY places in the vicinity that will sell trees, and look forward to when they throw special Christmas events and/or send out vouchers to make buying a tree cheaper. We also keep our eyes peeled for adverts in local town magazines and papers for unexpected Christmas tree sellers, and look out for Christmas tree sale signs as we drive around. My one big bugbear is signs that say Xmas tree. I hate the shortening of Christmas so so much that it will put me off even stepping foot across the threshold of a place with that sign, even if it has the cheapest trees, because it bothers me so so much! Just wrote out the whole word! It isn’t that hard! Ok I’m calming down. Breathe … We spent £25 on our first tree – I wish we could still get 6ft trees for that price! – and have spent up to £60. We missed the boat one year and all of the nice trees in our cheaper spots were gone, leaving only the enormous trees that would only fit in a similarly enormous house, or the smaller trees that were too short for me, so we had to go to the next price level up. So what did that expensive mistake teach us? Be prepared!

I used to follow my mum’s system of putting decorations up 12 days before Christmas and taking them down 12 days afterwards, but now I like my decorating to be done in the first week of December so we can enjoy the festiveness for the whole of December. There was a Christmas event at our local Frosts Garden Centre, where they reveal their trees, perhaps have discounts and lots of other lovely things. Last year they had a wonderful brass/jazz band playing, free wine and mince pies, as well as the restaurant being open and even free hand massages. I do love Frosts because the staff are really helpful and friendly, they have wheelchairs available for anyone to use, and it’s fairly easy to navigate the displays while in the chair for the user or in my case by my pusher. Also, last year I won a beautiful old fashioned style mini watering can, which has come in so handy for watering the tree as the spout gets under the branches really easily, and I wasn’t allowed to buy one before but thankfully I won one!

This year Frosts went one step further. At their special event on 30th November 2017, they also had chestnuts roasting on an open fire outside the doors. Well, they were roasting on an open BBQ, but you get the picture! Outside the air was crisp and cold and inside was warm and cosy. This year I came across the hand massage stand at just the right moment and met Marissa Beeton who runs Bilancia Holistic and Nails. She gave me a wonderful hand massage which was so soothing on the sore bits of my hands, wrist and arm. It came just at the right moment and I could feel how the muscles were relaxed for the rest of the evening. It was a fantastic touch for anyone, and especially for people who have pain or issues in that area like I do. Frosts has lovely trees too, but sadly the prices were not right for us.

On the following Sunday we went to get some food for dinner at Tesco. When we arrived we saw that they had loads of Christmas trees for sale and one of those silver barrel things that holds the netting for when you put a tree in to bag it up. There was also a band that was just packing up, so Tesco must have been hosting a Christmas tree event of some kind! We normally don’t look at trees from supermarkets, because they are usually already netted and I prefer to see the shape and height before I buy. As we left I noticed that the display tree was actually taller than me. It was perfectly tapered, it had a beautiful shape (and it was daylight at the time – so lots of our requirements were ticked off!).

After feeling so sad that we had missed out on getting a tree earlier in the week, and not knowing our next move, I began to feel a bit more hopeful. Maybe we hadn’t missed out, maybe I had been looking for trees in all the wrong places! We asked Jared, a young Tesco employee who had been out in the cold all day to help people with trees, if he could bag up that tree! He was quite willing – so happy days! As I hadn’t seen any signs or advertising about the event I wondered whether Tesco was missing a trick there? Perhaps the first weekend of Christmas I will check out supermarkets as I also saw Waitrose offering to undo and re-net trees later on that week.

Back our tree, Jared had to first remove the stand the tree had been in, which took a lot of work and a helping hand from my hubby, which should have set off alarm bells… He then couldn’t pull the tree through the bagging machine – again I should have thought about this. Jared got a colleague to help and did manage to net the tree so we paid £35 for our tree! We were so elated, and then realised that our boot and back seat were full and wondered whether the tree would even fit! It did, thankfully, and we got it home. Then came the trial of the stand.

We have a bucket type stand with four legs and a screw that goes into the base of the tree, with a little ball that goes into the bucket underneath any wonky bits of the base to even out the tree so it will be straight. Over the past few years we have had so much trouble with tree stumps being too big, or being a weird shape, and our trees then never standing straight, so much so that we had to tie string around it and pin it to the wall to keep it straight one year. Another year we had to prop the tree up with guitar stands or it would go right over. We had a wood saw too because, unless you get your tree from a garden centre or similar, you will need to chop a bit off of the bottom of the tree yourself, so that the tree will be able to take up the water it needs to keep it green for as long as possible.

We put the stand together and tried to place the tree in the stand. But the stand is apparently only for trees with a 9cm diameter and our wonderful new tree was 11cm. Despite previous years’ issues, we somehow hadn’t even noticed! We could either take back the tree, or get a new stand, but as we had a new bushy 7ft tree for just £35 (which would be more like £70 at a garden centre) we opted to get a new stand – in reality it is the stand that causes problems every year.

B&Q was standless as was Tesco, so we hot footed it to Homebase. We could have shopped online, but we were worried our tree would die of thirst before the stand arrived. We bought two stands: one with three prongs that sort of pressurised into place and a Krinner stand which ratchets into place with a foot operated pump. Both fit up to an 11cm tree, and the Krinner one fits perfectly and seems such good quality, which it ought to be for the extra money. When we unbagged the tree and it was securely in the base, we were shocked beyond belief to see that the tree was standing up straight and still first time! That has never happened before. We were instantly in love and are chuffed with our new stand.

So the tree was up, but there were more twists in the tale before the tree mission was complete. After much rearranging we got the tree in the right spot and began with the lights. We got some new lights this year called cluster lights which I’d seen in a posh Christmas magazine. They were £59 for the shortest string so way out of our price range, but we came across some for £16.99 in Aldi and I was made up! They look so, so, so much better than regular lights; it’s like night and day. But we haven’t quite got enough to do the whole tree, so we tried to use our old ones on the top but they look like we forgot to put any on when compared to the cluster lights! So we hope to get one more string of lights from Aldi, collect some copper baubles we ordered from Wilko to complement some we bought from Argos on Black Friday, and our tree will be complete.

So what have I finally learned from my seven years of tree buying as a ‘supposed’ grown up? Here are my top tips:

1) Find all the places where trees are sold, when they go on sale, and whether there will be any vouchers or special event sales.

2) Decide how much you want to spend on a tree and only look at places or trees within your budget. There is no point pining over a totally unaffordable tree even if it is gorgeous. All trees can be made to look amazing and it’s the fun you have decorating and watching the lights glow which makes the Christmas magic. Don’t overstretch and get into difficulty over a tree.

3) If you have never bought a live tree before make sure you know where it will go in your home; is there space for the tree, ideally away from a radiator? How will you get it home?

4) A tree stand that holds water is ideal to keep your tree green throughout Christmas. Invest in a stand that fits a tree base of at least 11cm diameter so you are future proofed. Krinner does an XXL stand, but they are £80, and only necessary if you have a 7ft plus tree every year – I’m sure there are other options online.

5) Do you have a wood saw in case you need to trim branches and shorten the tree base for height and/or so it can drink water?

6) Make sure you have enough lights. The best time to buy them is during the last week before Christmas or in the Boxing Day onwards sales, to get them as cheaply as possible. Also look out for special events throughout the year. I’ve found that in the week before Christmas, supermarkets tend to think no one wants decorations anymore, so lights go on sale. If you haven’t tried cluster lights do give them a try as they are absolutely beautiful.

7) Get baubles and other decorations in the sales if you can and put them away for the next year. This also works with cards, candles, wrapping paper, Christmas themed plates, cups and crockery, and crackers! You can save so much money! Check if the baubles come with string and if not find something to create the loops. There is nothing more annoying than being ready to decorate and all your baubles need to be strung and you dont’t have anything to do it with… Consider finishing the tree with lametta. People don’t always use it and it may be old fashioned but I think it finishes a tree to perfection especially with the Christmas lights reflecting and against it.

8) I also think it’s best to turn decorating into a party! Do it with children, family and friends. Get the Christmas playlist on, put out the mince pies and maybe have a glass or two of prosecco available. This is when the best memories are made. Don’t worry about the tree being ‘perfect’, just make sure you have fun with your loved ones. And then just sit back and relax once you’ve decorated your tree, with the living room lights off or just one lamp on, so the Christmas tree lights can really shine. There is something so hypnotic about Christmas lights slowly fading in and out, almost like a flickering fire. My husband who has a mental health condition finds it really soothing as it really calms his mind. I also find it really relaxing, totally magical and a lovely distraction from my pain.

Whatever tree you like, real or fake, big or small, potted or not, traditional or modern, a Christmas tree is the centrepiece of Christmas decorating as well as the place for all the presents of course!

Let me know what kind of tree traditions you have, what tree tips you have and all your tree related thoughts below. You can also let me know your thoughts on Twitter @alifeinhighdef with the tag #aHDChristmas and show me your tree pictures on Instagram @alifeinhighdefinition #aHDChristmas

Thanks so much for reading and until next time, live every moment well x

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Stretching Spoons For A Successful Christmas

It’s really nearly the end of November, which means it’s really nearly December, which means it’s really nearly Christmas!

That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

I’m sorry if it’s too early for some, but for me Christmas can never come too soon and planning how to make it work, for me, so that I can enjoy the season to its fullest, is an important part of that.

This blog is not actually about finding or stretching literal spoons for a successful Christmas, but about the ‘spoon theory’, which actually applies to everyone to some degree. I didn’t come up with the theory myself; I have come across it on numerous blogs, sites and chatrooms for pain, illness and fatigue. At the start of the day everyone has a particular amount of energy to use, and a particular number of tasks to complete. Under the spoon theory, you would say that the amount of energy you start the day with can be thought of as a number of spoons, and that each task you need to undertake will use up a particular number of your total number of spoons for the day.

This applies to everyone. If you have to get two children up and to nursery or school, get yourself to work and all that entails, collect the children, make a meal, get them to bed, and do the housework, you may have used up all your spoons before you get to read your book or do that exercise class. This isn’t a fail, it is just life getting in the way, and for people with health conditions, disabilities and extra challenges in their lives, they may start off with fewer spoons than the average person – so the only way to manage all of your tasks efficiently and to avoid feeling like a failure is to cut down the number of activities and to plan effectively.

I developed a pain condition over seven years ago, with fatigue kicking in about five years ago and really ramping up over the last few years. Fatigue became a massive factor in my life in during 2017. I remember the days I thought that eight hours sleep was really good. Now I think 16 to 18 hours is really good, and even then my eyes still burn for hours, and just two hours of quite limited activity will leave me ready for a four hour nap. This isn’t an in-depth chat about my illnesses though, this is an in depth look at planning Christmas when, like me, you may be short of ‘spoons’, for whatever reason!

When I was 16 I became a waitress – a job I had always imagined was super glamorous. While it was often fun, I can’t say it was ever glamorous! One thing waitressing taught me that has never left my mind is to always plan; how to most efficiently walk around my section, taking orders, checking customers have everything they need, taking payments, delivering food often up or down stairs etc., whilst keeping the customers and the equally important chef happy! The trick is to always have something in your hands; never go up or down the stairs without taking something with you that you will need, or need to get rid of, now or later.

I now apply the same principle in my home, by making sure I’m taking empty cups from the bedroom to the kitchen, dropping off dirty laundry on the way, then emptying a few things from the dishwasher whilst the kettle boils, and tidying something up on the way back to bed. And I’m always going back to bed! It’s good to pick up these habits so that I am not constantly running back and forth from room to room, wasting that valuable time and energy on just one task, and getting only the same amount or less housework done. My flat is not a model home by any stretch of the imagination, but we get by by using the pacing technique. It means whatever activity I do, I stop before I increase my pain too much (all activity increases my pain, but I do what I can) then rest, then start the activity again. One way I do this is by doing housework or jobs during adverts on the TV, and stopping when the adverts are over. Sometimes I use an alarm or timer and this does mean that cleaning the bathroom takes me hours, but it also means I don’t overdo it and have to spend the whole of the next day in bed recovering! If I need to waste a day in bed recovering, I want to have had more fun than cleaning the bathroom!

Another way to reduce the number of ‘spoons’ required to get through the day is to change the way you do an activity, for example, always having this shopping bags on top of the work surface so that you don’t have to bend down and reach for them if that causes aggravation; or taking one item out of the washing machine and putting it on the drying rack, rather than pulling everything out in one go (which really hurts me and leaves me with worse pain for at least 45 minutes from even such a quick job. In short, it’s helpful to think about the different ways there are to manage each of your activities so that you can do what you need to every day without pushing through the pain one day and overdoing it only to stay in bed for the next three days.

I love Christmas so much and we turn our home into a grotto of sorts, but before then comes the winter clean. When we hang the chains or foils from the ceiling we see every bit of dust on top of the door frames, previously unnoticed spiderwebs, marks on the walls, doors, and windows etc. Oh the shame! So in the weeks leading up to December it’s time for us (and I could never do half as much without my lovely husband who does the physical stuff while I direct, and save those spoons!), to do a bit of a deep clean, room by room, ready for the Christmas magic to be sprinkled around. Our big job this year is to clean the carpets with a carpet cleaner borrowed from our lovely Aunty. I’m not sure if the carpet can be rescued but we are going to give it a darn good try! Note to self for the future: never get such a light coloured carpet unless I can learn not to spill things every day! I blame my clumsiness on illness, so it’s totally not my fault, right?!

To find the extra spoons to take on the extra tasks of deep cleaning, and the best job of all, being the Christmas elf and decorating, you may need to borrow some time and energy from other activities! Number one for me, I’m trying really hard to have a better sleep routine. I’m currently reading my husband Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl, before settling down to sleep. Unfortunately I wake up in pain a lot or with stomach issues (too much personal info for a first blog?), so I can’t always get a straight night’s sleep, but I’m trying. Second, we are making more of the cosy winter season by batch cooking. This means spoons can be spent making food one day and then reheating it over the next few days. We make things like soups, stews, chillis, slow cooked pork belly or other meats that can be cooked low and slow – usually while I have another nap!

We just made a delicious chilli with extra courgette and spinach, but without the rice, so we enjoyed the extra vegetables and it made the mince stretch a lot further too. One night after we had to go out to a hospital appointment, which can use up a lot of spoons, we had chilli with chips, another night we had chilli on toast – honestly, it’s nice! Finally we are not punishing ourselves if we don’t get as much done as we had hoped, or if our health problems take over for the day, so we just have to wait until it’s a little less bad, pick ourselves up and start again the next day.

To summarise, my top tips are:

1. Make food plans, so that you can save your energy throughout each week by doing a little everyday

2. If you need a break, or you can’t achieve all your goals for the day, don’t punish yourself, start every day with a clean slate

3. While you are doing the boring things, make them more fun by having a sing along or a little dance break, or listen to an audio book, catch up on a podcast or get that Christmas music on, and time will fly by.

Thanks for reading my first blog and I hope you will join me again for my first year of blogs.