There is an annual debate over when it’s socially acceptable to put up your Christmas tree. Tradition dictates Christmas trees should be put up at the beginning of Advent on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which is Sunday, November 27 this year. Personally, I have no loyalty to a particular fate – I’ve been known to put it as early as November 6 and as late as Christmas Eve.
Sam Harpe, 39, has been selling Christmas trees on the corner of Alma Road in Clifton since he was 15. The Christmas Tree Shop Bristol, one of the city’s oldest and most favoured spots, returns to its usual spot on November 25.
His business partner, Ronan Maguire – who works as a criminal barrister out of season – has been supplying the city with trees for even longer, three decades. Even when Sam moved to Australia, he returned to Bristol to help with the business each Christmas, eventually returning to live in the city again around six years ago.
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The shop has always been based on Alma Road with business starting from the nearby garages for a few years before moving to its well-known spot on the corner of Whiteladies Road next to Clifton Down Shopping Centre.
“It was one of my first jobs,” Sam recalls, who has been with the business for almost 25 years. Out of season, Sam builds children’s playgrounds around the UK for the Green Play Project during the other eleven months of the year.
He says: “It kind of marries together because I make all of the wooden Christmas tree stands in our yard we build playgrounds in. We get all of the wood for that locally from Brockley Coombe Wood and part of the woodland management is that they have to clear out the pine and replace it with natives, so that’s a nice sustainable part of it.”
What species of Christmas tree is best?
Sam and Ronan supply most of their trees from Frenchay Forestry in the Mendips with some sourced from Denmark. “Brexit’s made it all very expensive,” he says. “It’s a mix of things, they obviously have fantastic trees but now there are more miles and travel.”
The Christmas Tree Shop offers a number of different species to suit different tastes and price ranges, and Sam is always happy to offer advice.
He explains: “The main one is Nordmann Fir, which is a type that holds its needles really well and they last well. There is also a traditional Norwegian Spruce, a spikey traditional tree and some people will never move away from that. We also have a few Nodeball and Frasers as well which are quite different looking but quite lovely.”
They also sell some potted trees, which can be reused if kept alive for the rest of the year. The Nordmann Fires average at about £50, ranging from £30 to £120 depending on how many feet it is in length. Norweigan Spruces are cheaper at around £7 per foot.
“This year, things have got a little bit more expensive. We haven’t put prices up for the last five years but this year, everything is costing us so much more, we can’t really help but make them a little bit more.”
Artificial versus real trees
There has been a rise in artificial trees in recent years, an option that saves you money over time if they’re reused each Christmas. However, fake trees are made from plastic and metal, and they can’t be recycled, making real Christmas trees better for the environment on the whole.
Sam believes that Christmas trees are one of the last magical aspects left in the festive season. “If you enjoy that, that’s absolutely fine. I personally think it’s the last really beautiful thing we have about Christmas when you bring the tree into your house and it completely changes the whole atmosphere of your home for a month or more.
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“If you look at the expenses over Christmas, the tree seems like it’s expensive, but you enjoy it every day for a month whereas most things are a couple of hours of eating, drinking or opening presents. Even though it seems like an expense it’s probably one of the best value parts of Christmas and the thing that makes the biggest difference to your home environment.”
Sam hopes people might consider supporting their local businesses this Christmas rather than turning to supermarkets. Independents like The Christmas Tree Shop provide a personal service for the customer paired with more than five decades of combined experience from Sam and Ronan.
“I think supermarkets selling trees has an effect but our market’s a bit different because you come and choose and it’s a more personal service. If supermarkets keep them inside they become dryer and they don’t last as long.
“If you buy a tree off of me and you’re not happy, you can come back and we’ll give you another one. It’s a much more direct link with someone rather than a corporation. We just try and have the very best trees.”
The delivery service was set up during the pandemic but it has continued to be a part of their business since it was launched in 2020. They are happy to provide the service remotely, too, offering video calls with customers who would still like to pick out their tree.
Sam and Ronan tend to sell out around mid-December with just a few remaining that struggle to shift. “If you’re hunting for a bargain perhaps come later in the season, but you don’t have the same choice,” he says.
When the trees sell out, that’s when Sam can finally rest after working without a day off for the entire month. “It means Christmas Day is such a huge relief, I’m very happy. I’m out working every day for a solid month ready to put my feet up and we get the whole family round and cook a great big meal.”
The Christmas Tree Shop is open from Friday, November 25 on Alma Road
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