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 What is tall, green and covered in bells?

 The church Christmas tree of course. You might be puzzled by the reference to bells unless you have stood close to it, but in fact there were dozens of silver bells hanging from it - more than the coloured balls and the stars put together - and thereby hangs a tale.

 Back in the mists of time, our former Rector decided it would be a good idea if the ringers volunteered to organise, erect and decorate the Christmas tree. We did of course, and we have been on tree duty ever since. We normally give up practice evening to put it up and most of another to take it down. Everything is on a much bigger scale than your tree at home, so here's how it's done.

 The tree is usually about 12 - 15 feet high. This year was a bit taller than normal. Did you notice it had two top shoots instead of one? Unfortunately when you order a 'large' tree, you don't have much control over the length. The supplier always errs on the side of generosity, so the first task is normally cutting off lots of lower branches and sawing off some of the trunk. This year we had to cut off 5-6 feet.

 How does it stay up? One of our former ringers donated a plastic dustbin which we fill with earth. It has to be rammed in layer by layer to be firm enough to hold the tree tight, and takes about three barrow loads to fill. Shovelling in the soil while trying to avoid the branches, and the hands of the people ramming it in, is quite an art, especially with the horrible, sticky clay that the churchyard provides. While doing all this, a couple of people need to hold the tree and someone needs to keep an eye on whether it is upright. That can be harder than it seems, since most trees are a bit twisted, so when they are actually upright and in balance, they look a bit crooked.

 One year the tree was bigger than normal, and despite cutting off quite a chunk, after we had erected it, we realised it was too tall and in danger of toppling, so we had to dig out all the earth (much harder than putting it in, saw some more off an start again! Over the years, the tree has lived in several places. It started between the pulpit and the vestry door (before the platform was built. Then it moved to the southwest corner and for the last few years it has been near the book of remembrance. In its earlier homes, there were things on the wall to which we could attach a discrete safety line, but not in its current home, so we have to get the balance right!

 Erecting it is only the beginning. Out come the ladders and the giant wooden steps. (Look in the vestry if you think giant sounds exaggerated). Those with a head for heights climb up ladders or onto window ledges to dress the upper part of the tree, while the rest work from ground level.

 Most years we indulged in a challenging, though frustrating, game called 'make the lights work. With three double strings you can imagine the fun trying to find the dead bulbs. Last year, we failed to get one string working, so this year we treated the tree to three new sets of lights and went up market. With a total of 300 bulbs, the tree was positively glowing, and we hope you liked the result.

 All good things come to an end, and at Epihany we have to reverse the process. Taking decorations off is quicker of course (but not stowing 300 light bulbs back into the sockets of their plastic storage frames). Getting the tree down is also much easier than erecting it. If we are lucky, we can twist the tree out of its earthen base to avoid having to dig all the soil out. We did that successfully this year, and if you go round the the rubbish area in the churchyard, you will find a giant clay 'sandcastle' with a 42 hole down the middle where the tree was.

 That about completes the job, except for sweeping up a bucket full of needles and stowing the decorations back in the tower for another year.

John Harrison ( December 2002 )


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