Christmas! I said, or words to that effect. I definitely invoked our saviour, and I was as flabbergasted as anyone involved in the Nativity Story itself. I stood stock still like the ass on seeing a child being born in a manger; I gaped like the Wise Men beholding the star in the east; and I quivered like dear old Joseph on being told by his wife that she was about to give birth to someone else’s child, but it was really quite all right, darling, and there was no case for jealousy and it was indeed a great compliment that she had been chosen by the chap in question.
“How much?” I asked again. We were at the Christmas tree dealer, and my shining-eyed 11-year-old had picked a lovely eight-footer. It was freshly cut and smelt sweetly of sap. Its branches were more or less symmetrical, and its Nordmann needles were glued on as tenaciously as the cilia of a TV anchor’s hairdo.
My friend the salesman had already used his buzzsaw to whittle the stem, so that it would fit in our stand, and now it was being shoved through the wind-tunnel jobby and swaddled in white plastic netting. The only question left was the price.
I had a vague memory that last year, and the year before that, we had been asked for something in the region of £30 to £35 for a tree of identical height and beauty.
So when he said, ” Fifty-five pounds to you, my friend, and that’s as cheap as I can do it,” I not only boggled; I was placed in a momentary embarrassment. “Look here,” I said, after rustling theatrically through my wallet, “I am afraid I only have £50 on me,” and there was one of those difficult pauses.
We looked at the tree, wrapped and ready to go. We looked at my daughter, agog with excitement, and already thinking about the candy hooks and little robins and lametta and other exquisitely vulgar stuff that we were going to drape all over it while we all ate mince pies and danced around to Slade’s evergreen anthem, Yer it iz Merry Christmas.
I looked from tree to girl, from girl to tree, and I knew there was nothing for it, and so I foraged despairingly in my wallet again. There in a secret compartment I found some Syrian money, and some US dollars, and the beady eye of the tree dealer fell on the greenbacks.
“How many dollars have you got?” he asked, since he is a well-travelled entrepreneur. “Three,” I said. And so for fifty quid and three dollars I did the deal, and as I fed the trunk into the back of the car I thought, “Huh!”
We are told that a new menace stalks the economic landscape. We are told that prices are going to slump as demoralisingly as they did in Japan in the Nineties. We are told that for the first time in a century or more the great tapeworm of deflation is going to coil itself in our collective economic entrails, sapping life and confidence from the system. We are told to fear deflation far more than inflation, and all I can say is that on the evidence of my annual Christmas tree transaction, we are being told a load of old cobblers.
The price of Christmas trees is up by about 30 per cent, and here is a clear, unmistakable sign of how a fall in the value of the currency can hit every household in the land – or every household that buys a real Christmas tree.
The pound has fallen against the euro, so that you pay more for your German tannenbaum. Sterling has fallen against the Danish krone, so that you pay more for your Nordmann non-drops; it has fallen against the Norwegian krone, so that you pay more for your classic Norwegian spruce; and it has fallen against the Serb dinar, so that you pay more for your Serb blue.
And yet people are also paying far more this year for trees that are grown here in the UK – and between 70 and 80 per cent of the British Christmas tree market is still home-grown. It is a fascinating example of how devaluation can import inflation into the price of goods that are actually produced in Britain, by British workers, with entirely British ingredients, including British soil and British rain.
You might expect the British trees to remain comparatively cheap; but then that would be to ignore the role of the Danish Christmas tree barons who apparently control the market in this country.
When they see their plantations in Scotland, they don’t see British trees. They see European trees. They see trees that could be sold as easily in Frankfurt or Paris as in London, and so they apply a universal euro price – and hey presto, I end up paying far more, in sterling, for a tree that is almost certainly grown in the UK.
Even if the trees are not produced or controlled by Danes, the general lunar pull of the euro Christmas tree price has its effect on the British wholesalers, who take advantage of the position to jack up their prices and increase their margins.
The result is a roaring Christmas tree price inflation that does not reflect any shortage of trees, and may indicate that we may have actually misunderstood the risks of the current economic climate.
Is my pricey Christmas tree the canary in the mineshaft? We have interest rates as low as they have ever been; we have the Government borrowing at a truly dizzying rate, flooding the system with money. Is there not a risk that a year or so from now we will have inflation, not deflation?
Is there not a risk that we are effectively repeating – on a much bigger scale – the mistake of the Lawson reflation of 1987? And, of course, the shake-out in the high street will itself exert an upwards push on prices, with the loss of much loved old cheapo retailers.
When we got home I found that we had lost our Christmas tree lights, and I thought, I know, I’ll go to the place we always go. I’ll go to Woolworths, I thought.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 09 December 2008 under the heading, “If only the so-called slump in prices had started with my Christmas tree.”]