The guilt that can never be washed away

What to do with old Christmas trees?

All the other Christmas paraphernalia — the tinsel, the fairy lights, the crackers, the crib, the paper hats, the Santa outfit — can either be put into a box until next year or, better still, thrown away.

But Christmas trees are too bulky to throw away, particularly now that dustmen are so picky, and far too skeletal to keep until next year.

Discarded: Christmas trees are often left in the street once the holiday season is over

Discarded: Christmas trees are often left in the street once the holiday season is over

Our usual solution is to leave the tree up until way into January and simply pretend it isn’t there. But after a while, the little green bits start to fall off, and, as February looms, an already depressing time of year becomes more depressing still.

This year, around mid-to-late January, I eventually got round to taking down our rather large Christmas tree and dragging it into our garden. There it lay for almost a month, looking increasingly forlorn as each day went by.

But what next? Our garden is small — no more than a few yards in each direction — so this depressing item couldn’t simply be hidden away. On the contrary, lying there on its side, rejected and unloved, it was the sorry centrepiece of the whole garden.

I thought of taking it to the local dump, but that would have involved squeezing it into our car, which, in turn, would have meant all the green bits going everywhere and, more likely than not, no room for the driver.

And then a friend from Northern Ireland came up with a clever idea. She said that in the Sixties, her mother’s friend Betty used to leave household appliances she no longer had any use for — a deep-freeze, a television, a fridge — next to the sea ‘ready for the tide’. Our house is on a long terrace overlooking the North Sea, so this seemed like the perfect solution.

Though I’m not particularly ecologically inclined, I would normally disapprove of bunging consumer durables into the sea. But a tree seemed different. Surely it would soon drift away, clean out of sight, causing no harm to anyone, perhaps even offering a handy perch for an out-of-shape seagull to catch his breath, or a life raft for a capsized sailor?

My wife warned me that there might well be bylaws against throwing Christmas trees into the sea. After all, these days there are laws against everything.

Andrew Rawnsley’s new book reveals that, since New Labour came to power in 1997, no fewer than 3,600 new criminal offences have been added to the statute books.

A bossy notice pinned to our sea wall goes so far as to warn of fines of up to £2,000 for simply feeding a seagull. So I decided to wait until the dead of night, when I could not be seen.

Under cover of darkness, with my duffle coat hood pulled firmly forward, I lugged the tree across the garden, opened our front gate, looked furtively left and right, and then dragged the tree across the road and heaved it onto the beach.

It was a very stormy night, with vast waves, so I placed the Christmas tree as close as I possibly could to the water’s edge, abandoned it and then scurried back home, sure that it would be carried away.

‘Mission accomplished!’ I said to my wife.

Disposed of: Binmen are forced to load their truck with unwanted trees, leaving less space for the usual domestic waste

Disposed of: Binmen are forced to load their truck with unwanted trees, leaving less space for the usual domestic waste

I felt an unexpected sense of elation, like a burglar in an Ealing comedy who has just made off with a bagful of swag. I went to sleep thinking of the Christmas tree bobbing on the rough sea. By now, I thought, it will be halfway to Holland, and we will never have to think about it again.

The next morning, I drew the curtains and looked out of our bedroom window. The tree had disappeared!

But then I looked to the far right. There it was, 50 yards down the beach, clinging stubbornly on to dry land. As the day progressed, the sea would occasionally push it a few feet back in our direction. By the evening, it was almost exactly where I had left it the night before.

A Christmas tree on a beach in February is like something out of a gloomy Swedish film: a symbol of misery and abandonment and no doubt death, too.

For me, it was also symbolic of guilt: I had tried to get rid of it when no one was looking, and now here it was, back at the scene of crime, there for all to see.

It stayed there, sometimes moving a few yards back or a few yards forward, for all that day and all the next day as well. But when we returned after a weekend away — hey presto! — the Christmas tree had disappeared.

I wish I could say I feel relief, but instead, I feel a strange kind of apprehension.

Did a nosy neighbour call a special Christmas Tree Helpline to complain about my treatment of the abandoned fir? At this very minute, is it being swabbed for my DNA? Will the police read this article and come knocking on my door tomorrow, asking me to identify the exact tree (they might produce a photofit) and confess to its drowning?

We are living through an age of anxiety. There isn’t a moment of the day when you can feel sure that a discarded Christmas tree won’t return to haunt you.

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