If you have been brought up in an English speaking country, then the chances are that you would be very familiar with the bank holiday - Boxing Day. However, how many of us actually know what Boxing Day represents or the history behind it.

Well, Boxing Day is traditionally the day after Christmas day when wealthy people in the United Kingdom would give a box containing a gift to their servants. Today, Boxing Day is better known as a bank or public holiday that occurs on December 26 - as it does in the United Kingdom, or the first or second weekday after Christmas Day, depending on national or regional laws of the country in which it is being celebrated. It is observed in this tradition in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

In South Africa, Boxing Day was renamed Day of Goodwill in 1994. In Ireland it is recognized as St. Stephen's Day (Irish: Lá Fhéile Stiofáin) or the Day of the Wren (Irish: Lá an Dreoilín). In the Netherlands, Lithuania, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia and Poland, December 26 is celebrated as the Second Christmas Day.

In Canada, Boxing Day takes place on December 26th and is a federal public holiday. In Ontario, Boxing Day is a statutory holiday where all full-time workers receive time off with pay.

Where does the term Boxing Day come from?

The exact meaning behind the term "boxing" is unclear, and there are several competing theories, none of which are definitive. However, the tradition of Boxing Day has long included giving money and other gifts to those who were needy and in service positions. The most likely theory of how the term Boxing Day came about has its roots in English history. For centuries it was a custom for tradesmen to collect "Christmas boxes" of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This is even mentioned in Samuel Pepys' famous diary, notably his entry for 19 December 1663. This custom is linked to an even older English tradition where in exchange for ensuring that wealthy landowners' Christmases ran smoothly, their servants were allowed to take the 26th off to visit their families. The employers gave each servant a box containing gifts and bonuses, and sometimes leftover food.

Even today, it is still an accepted tradition in England for dustman and paper boys/girls to knock on the doors of their 'customers' to ask for and collect their 'Christmas Box'.

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My Grandmother – although she spent most of her adult life in England – was born and brought up by Spey Bay in the north east of Scotland. Perhaps most famous for it production of ‘peaty’ whiskey, the area was also endowed with excellent arable farmland. This turned out to be a lucky coincidence as my Nan was fortunate enough to be born into the Watson family who owned large tracts of land in the area. Specialising in the production of ‘nips’ and ‘tatties’ (parsnips and potatoes to the rest of us), the wealthy Watson family had one of the largest farms in the area – larger still than the Baxter family who are now well-known for their up market brand of ‘Baxters soups’. Although farming rivals, my Nan was briefly engaged to be married to the young Mr. Baxter, but unfortunately this engagement was not to last. Why? Because she chose a life of love over privilege by marrying my Grandpa Bert.

But this isn't a story about my Nan, this is a story about my Nan’s Scotch Broth, or as she would have called it – broth! Now traditionally lamb is used for Scotch broth, but my Nan usually used chopped chicken breasts. However, the recipe is basically the same for both meats and so I have included both in this recipe - just go by the sections that are relevant to you.


200 g (7oz) pearl barley
1.5 litre (2½pts) chicken stock, or lamb stock if you are cooking with lamb shoulder.
4 large skinless chicken breasts, chopped - or 1.15kg/2½lb lamb shoulder
1 onion, sliced
1 turnip, sliced
1 parsnip, sliced
1 leek, sliced
1 large potato, diced
2 carrots, sliced
2 sticks celery, sliced
parsley, chopped
a pinch of salt
loads of freshly ground black pepper (that's how she made it, but I recommend you add small amounts at a time to suit your taste.)
2 bay leaves
1 sprig of time

How to make Scotch Broth

Serves 6

Put the pearl barley into a bowl of cold water, then set aside to soak.

Meanwhile, place the chopped chicken or lamb into a large saucepan or flameproof casserole dish and cover with the appropriate stock. Bring to a simmer and skim off the scum. Now add the onion, bay leaf and thyme to the pan. Return to a gentle simmer and cook for one hour, skimming occasionally.

Add the carrots, turnips, parsnips, leeks and celery to the broth. Season with the salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bring to a very gentle simmer, cover with a lid and cook for 30 minutes.

After the vegetables and  chicken/lamb have been simmering for 30 minutes, rinse the pearl barley in a sieve under cold running water. If you are using chicken then give the broth a good stir, if you are using the lamb - turn the lamb over. Add the pearl barley and potatoes to the casserole. Cook gently for a further 45 minutes, uncovered. If you are using the lamb make sure that it is lamb is very tender and is falling off the bone and that the barley is softened. At this point, remove the pan from the heat

If cooking with lamb, lift the lamb out of the pot with tongs or a large fork and put on a board. Carve off all the meat, slicing or tearing into largish chunks and discarding any skin and bone. Season the broth with more salt and pepper to taste and spoon into large, deep plates. Divide the lamb between the plates and sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley.

If cooking with the chicken then serve evenly into suitable bowls. Add salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley.

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How to make stock from turkey bones

When cooking hearty meals over the winter period you can't beat the flavour of a good old, homemade stock. So with that in mind, don't waste your old turkey bones once Christmas meals are over, put them to good use by making a proper stock put of them. You can be as fancy or as simple as you like. My Nan just used to chuck the turkey bones by themselves in as she would put any extra ingredients in the main dish. I like to add some celery and an onion/a few shallots, but that is through force of habit.

However, if you want to get really fancy then try this recipe, but my Nan - God rest her soul - will probably tell me that all I have made is rubbish soup. I will leave it to you to decide.

1 x turkey carcass
2 x carrots, scrubbed or peeled, and cut in half
2 x large onions, halved
2 x stalks of celery
The green tops of 1 or 2 leeks
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
Salt and ground black pepper
Cold water

How to make turkey stock

How to make stock from turkey bones
Place turkey carcass (broken up slightly if possible) into a large saucepan. Add the vegetables, season, then cover with cold water.

Bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of hours until all the flavour has been drawn from the turkey bones.

Pour through a sieve and discard the bones and vegetables. Cheat! Of course you can always do what I do, which is to remove all the bones and large pieces of anything my slotted spoon can drag out. After that I attack what's left with a hand held blender.

Allow to cool for a while and if there is any fat floating on the top of the stock, skim it off and discard.

Taste the stock - it should have a good flavour. If you want it a bit stronger, just reduce it down a bit. Use what you need and freeze the rest of it until required.

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LEFTOVER TURKEY RECIPE - Turkey and Broccoli Bake


How to stop Christmas trees from dropping their needles
How to stop Christmas trees from dropping their needles

For most people, the thing they tend to worry about most with a cut, live Christmas trees is how long the needles are going to last before they either fall off, get trampled around the house or get stuck in the soles of your feet. The trouble with cut trees is this, over half of a Christmas tree's weight is down to the water inside it. So when its roots are cut off for sale, the tree is no longer able to replenish the water it loses through evaporation and transpiration - the emission of water vapour in plants.

A Christmas tree will lose water naturally through its needles, but without roots it will be unable to replace that which is lost. Once this water loss reaches a critical level the trees natural defense system will kick in and it will try to shed as many needles as possible before it dies of dehydration (desiccation) in an attempt to save itself.

Bare Christmas tree
There are techniques you can use that will slow their water loss down, and this will prolong the time that the needles will stay on the stems and branches, but you need to start treatment as soon as possible after the tree has been cut.

The problem that occurs here is that most trees you buy would have had their roots removed a week or two earlier, sometimes more, before they even reach a shop, and each shop generally stops buying new stock during the second week in December. By that time, and particularly if the weather has been warm, they would have been drying out for a week or two and will probably be dropping leaves as soon as they are out of their protective netting. If you are the type of person who looks for a bargain just one or two days before Christmas day then you really are going to get what you pay for.

With all trees slightly differing some are worse for drying out than others, but with a little attention, you can maintain the quality of your display trees until the twelfth day itself. Check out our top tips for Christmas tree care.

How to prevent a Christmas tree from dropping its needles

How to stop Christmas trees from dropping their needles
How to stop Christmas trees from dropping their needles
1. The first thing to do with your chosen tree is to make a fresh cut 1-2 inches back from the base, quite often this is a service that your retailer will provide, but you may have to ask first.

Try not to bruise or dirty the cut surface otherwise you may need to give it another cut when you get home

2. Once you return home place the fresh cut into a container of water as this will allow some uptake of fluid back into the plant. If you intend to put your tree up in the home straight away, then your choice of Christmas tree stand then become important.

There are many on the market now that come with an in-built reservoir. I would advise purchasing one to keep your tree in peak condition. Remember to keep it topped up though as you will be surprised at how much water it will use. If you intend to wait before you decorate your tree then it will probably be best for your tree to leave it outside in the cold. The colder it is the less water will be lost through evaporation and transpiration.

How to stop Christmas trees from dropping their needles
How to stop Christmas trees from dropping their needles
3. With regards to Christmas tree stands make sure that it is of a suitable size for your tree. If you think that you can get away with a smaller size you will end up having to whittle away its base to make it fit.

By doing this, you will be removing the cambium layer responsible for water intake. This negates the point of having a stand with a reservoir. Your tree is also more likely to fall over!

4. Use small LED or low voltage lights as they will produce little or no heat. Larger lights will warm up where they touch the branches causing water loss.

5. If possible, keep your tree in a cool room, out of draughts and direct sunlight as this will all help in reducing water loss. If this isn't possible then remember to keep your tree away from direct sources of heat such as electric or open fires.

WARNING! Pine sap can be highly volatile if accidentally ignited, and if a tree catches light you can lose more than just your prized Christmas ornaments, you may end up losing your home! Remember the the longer the tree has been without roots, the drier it becomes and this increases the risk of it all going up in flames!

How to stop Christmas trees from dropping their needles
How to stop Christmas trees from dropping their needles
6. Finally, the oldest trick in the book. Spray the underside of you tree with hairspray as this will block the stomatal pores in the needles that allow water to escape.

Unfortunately this will also make your tree more flammable, although nowadays you can buy cans of Xmas tree 'needle-fast' spray. You generally find them next to cans of Christmas tree pine fragrance - perhaps the most ridiculous product on the market today as it can end up making your room smell like a 1970's toilet!

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The Christmas holiday is arguably the most awaited and celebrated holiday in the Christian world. However, Christmas as we know it today is a relatively modern affair having almost died out in England during the 17th century. Why? Because it was banned by Oliver Cromwell in 1644 in the belief that it was a wasteful festival that threatened core Christian beliefs. Consequently, all activities relating to Christmas, including attending mass, were forbidden. Not surprisingly, the ban was hugely unpopular and many people continued to celebrate Christmas secretly in their homes!

Of course the Christmas holiday is stronger than ever after being re-invented and then given a new lease of life by the genius that was Charles Dickens. This Christmas renaissance was solely down to the publication of his most famous book 'A Christmas Carol' that was introduced to the English speaking world in 1843.

The History of Christmas

You may not have realized it but Christmas has always been a strange combination of Christian, Pagan and folk traditions. In fact, as far back as 389 AD, St Gregory Nazianzen (one of the Four Fathers of the Greek Church) warned against 'feasting in excess, dancing and crowning the doors'. The Church was already finding it hard to bury the Pagan remnants of the midwinter festival.

Of course, Christmas is not only a Christian festival as this celebration can trace its roots in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the festivals of the ancient Greeks, the beliefs of the Druids and the folk customs of Europe. This is because Christmas comes just after the middle of winter when the sun is strengthening and the days are just starting to grow longer. Throughout history this has been a time of feasting and celebration.

Our ancient ancestors were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors. The seasons and weather played a very important part in their lives and because of this they had a great reverence for, and even worshipped, the sun. The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule (another name for Christmas) is thought to have come. At Winter Solstice the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.

The Romans also held a festival to mark the Winter Solstice. Saturnalia (from the God Saturn) ran for seven days from 17th December. It was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants. The festival also involved processions, decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles and giving presents.

During the medieval period (c.400 AD - c.1400 AD) Christmas was a time for feasting and merrymaking. It was a predominantly secular festival but contained some religious elements.

Medieval Christmas lasted 12 days from Christmas Eve on 24th December, until the Epiphany (Twelfth Night) on 6th January. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means 'to show', meaning the time when Jesus was revealed to the world. Even up until the 1800s the Epiphany was at least as big a celebration as Christmas day.

Many Pagan traditions had been brought to Britain by the invading Roman soldiers. These included covering houses in greenery and bawdy partying that had its roots in the unruly festival of Saturnalia.

The Church attempted to curb Pagan practices and popular customs were given Christian meaning. Carols that had started as Pagan songs for celebrations such as mid-summer and harvest were taken up by the Church. By the late medieval period the singing of Christmas carols had become a tradition.

The Church also injected Christian meaning into the use of holly, making it a symbol for Jesus' crown of thorns. According to one legend, the holly's branches were woven into a painful crown and placed on Christ's head by Roman soldiers who mocked him, chanting: "Hail King of the Jews." Holly berries used to be white but Christ's blood left them with a permanent crimson stain.

Another legend is about a little orphan boy who was living with shepherds when the angels came to announce Jesus' birth. The child wove a crown of holly for the newborn baby's head. But when he presented it, he became ashamed of his gift and started to cry. Miraculously the baby Jesus reached out and touched the crown. It began to sparkle and the orphan's tears turned into beautiful scarlet berries.

Bans on Christmas

From the middle of the 17th century until the early 18th century the Christian Puritans suppressed Christmas celebrations in Europe and America.

The Puritan movement began during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in England (1558-1603). They believed in strict moral codes, plenty of prayer and close following of New Testament scripture.

As the date of Christ's birth is not in the Gospels the Puritans thought that Christmas was too strongly linked to the Pagan Roman festival and were opposed to all celebration of it, particularly the lively, boozy celebrations inherited from Saturnalia. In 1644 all Christmas activities were banned in England. This included decorating houses with evergreens and eating mince pies.

Victorian Christmas

After a lull in Christmas celebrations the festival returned with a bang in the Victorian Era (1837-1901). The Victorian Christmas was based on nostalgia for Christmases past. Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) inspired ideals of what Christmas should be, capturing the imagination of the British and American middle classes. This group had money to spend and made Christmas a special time for the family.

The Victorians gave us the kind of Christmas we know today, reviving the tradition of carol singing, borrowing the practice of card giving from St. Valentine's day and popularising the Christmas tree.

Although the Victorians attempted to revive the Christmas of medieval Britain, many of the new traditions were Anglo-American inventions. From the 1950s, carol singing was revived by ministers, particularly in America, who incorporated them into Christmas celebrations in the Church. Christmas cards were first sent by the British but the Americans, many of whom were on the move and away from their families, picked up the practice because of a cheap postal service and because it was a good way of keeping in contact with people at home.

Christmas trees were a German tradition, brought to Britain and popularised by the royal family. Prince Albert first introduced the Christmas tree into the royal household in Britain in 1834. He was given a tree as a gift by the Queen of Norway which was displayed in Trafalgar Square.

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We all know that Christmas is a busy time and most people feel pressured to throw a huge spread of food for any guest or family that manage to make it round. So if you have a need for Christmas cookies than a quick, simple and tasty recipe has got to be a winner. In my opinion, if it is going to take too long to make then it probably won't get made. Besides, not only will this Xmas cookie recipe make biscuits to any shape or design you like (so long as you have the cutter) you can also use your Christmas cookies as Christmas tree ornaments! It just keeps getting better!


100g/3½oz unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
100g/3½oz caster sugar
1 free-range egg, lightly beaten
275g/10oz plain flour
1 tsp vanilla extract


400g/14oz icing sugar
3-4 tbsp water
2-3 drops food coloring
Edible glitter

How to make Christmas Cookies

1. Before you start, preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5. Next, line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until pale, light and fluffy. See note below for technique for creaming butter

3. Beat in the egg and vanilla extract, a little at a time until well combined.

4. Stir in the flour until the mixture comes together as a dough.

5. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out on a lightly floured work surface to a thickness of 1cm/½in.

6. Using biscuit cutters or a glass, cut biscuits out of the dough and carefully place onto the baking tray. To make into Christmas tree decorations, carefully make a hole in the top of the biscuit using a straw.

7. Bake the biscuits for 8-10 minutes, or until pale golden-brown. Set aside to harden for 5 minutes, then cool on a wire rack.

8. Now for the icing. Sift the icing sugar into a large mixing bowl and stir in enough water to create a smooth mixture. When finished, stir in the food colouring.

9. Carefully spread the icing onto the biscuits using a knife and sprinkle over the glitter. Now set aside the cookies until the icing hardens.

10. Once hardened the cookies are now ready to serve.

Note.'Creaming' means combining sugar with a solid fat, such as butter, shortening or margarine. Ensure the fat has softened to room temperature before you start. Beat the fat with the sugar to a light and fluffy texture. Start mixing quite slowly and, as the mixture becomes softer and well combined, you can mix faster. As you beat it, the mixture should increase in volume and take on a paler colour.

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Go back far enough in time and you will find that the human race lived the nomadic existence of hunter gatherers. Following nature's seasons and collecting wild grown food, when that precious food availability dropped off, the nomadic family groups uprooted and moved on to where different foods were becoming available. For tens of thousands of years their lives followed this natural and sustainable pattern from season to season and year to year, learning from hard earned knowledge passed down through the generations. It was only when man began to farm and harvest crops, and then go on to develop increasingly viable and nutritious crops, that early human civilisations were finally formed.

The vegetables that we eat today - which unfortunately many of us take for granted  - are solely the results of the endeavours of our ancestors. Without their knowledge and tenacity we just wouldn't have the range of 'all-year-round' food that we have available to us today and better yet, we can still grow them using those same skills that were developed by our ancestors too far back to remember.

Obviously, with so many crops to choose from it would be impossible for you to get all of the information you would need from a single article, but luckily I have done a lot of the hard work for you as you can see below.

So, if you have a vegetable garden just ready and waiting, or you just want to learn about growing vegetables just click on your selected article to find out specific information on growing your preferred vegetable crops. And if you can't find what you are looking for then drop me a request using the comments option at the bottom.

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Based on an extract from ‘Practical Gardening and Food Production in Pictures’ – published in 1940

On any piece of ground that is used for growing edible plants it is important to adopt some kind of crop rotation. The effect of rotation is to obtain a better yield from your crops and to avoid diseases which will attack said crops if they are continuously grown on the same piece of land. Be aware that if you continue to grow the same or related edible plants in the same piece of ground then both soil borne pests as well as foliage pests will build up over time. This can only result in poorer crop yields in each subsequent year. That being said, onions are the only crop which can be grow on the same land year after year, provided that suitable fertilisers and manures are applied.

In practise, many gardeners follow a two year rotation. Half of their plot is taken up with potatoes while the remainder is used for other crops. In such a case the operation is to simply rotate the crops alternate years, but the best method is to use a three year crop rotation. Take a look at the following crop rotation diagram.

By using a rotation of crops, the same piece of land will not carry the same vegetables in successive years. For convenience, crops can be divided into three groups.

1. Peas and Beans
2. Cabbage, broccoli and other brassicas, turnips and Swedes.
3. Root crops

Note. Lettuce, spinach and other salad crops can be treated as intercrops, while leeks, onions and celery can be placed anywhere, but preferably in the area where the brassicas etc are being grown.

Regarding fertilisers and digging, each area will of course need to be treated differently. In this way only one section (Root crops) will need to be double-dug each year, reducing the amount of heavy work required.

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Christmas tree

The use of evergreen trees as part of a seasonal celebration has been popular in and around Europe for centuries, if not millennia. In fact as far back as Roman times, evergreens trees were used in the ancient Saturnalia festival – the Roman equivalent to our modern New Year’s celebrations. It was also their custom to exchange the branches and twigs of evergreen trees as a good-luck blessing.

Although many historians agree that it was Scandinavian pagans during the eighth century who first brought trees into their homes for ceremonial practices, it was the German Saxons who took the idea further by illuminated their trees with candles, and adorning them with decorations for good fortune. This tradition became so ingrained in German culture it was no wonder it made the jump to the Christmas celebration via early German Christians.

The best and earliest example of a fir tree being used as part of the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth was by Martin Luther - leader of the protestant reformation during the sixteenth century. Legend has it that on one crisp Christmas Eve, Martin Luther was taking a walk through some snow covered woods when he became struck by the beauty of some small frosted evergreens which appeared to shimmer in the moonlight as he approached them. When he returned home, he brought with him one of the smaller tree which he set up inside so he could share this story with his children. He then decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honour of Christ's birth.

Christmas tree
During the 19th century the popularity of the Christmas tree tradition took off, and spread throughout the Royal Courts of Europe and Russia. As a child of 13, the future Queen of England – Princess Victoria - was already well traveled and familiar with the custom. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, she wrote,

'...after dinner...we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room...There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees…'

The Victorian and Albert Tree The Christmas tree ‘officially’ arrived in England in 1841, when Queen Victoria's husband - the German-born Prince Albert - set up a tree in Windsor Castle. Introduced first to this country by German Merchants, it was the influence of the Georgian Royal family that really brought the Xmas tree to our attention. However, the British public were not particularly fond of the German Monarchy during this period and so the fashion for displaying a Christmas tree – for the time being - stayed at Court.

Although the traditional Christmas tree was still unpopular during the first half of the 19th Century, things were set for a change in 1846, when a woodcut of the Royal couple was published in the Illustrated London News. They were pictured standing with their children around a decorated Fir tree, but unlike the previous Royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at Court this time immediately became fashionable – but not just in Britain.

Christmas tree
In America, German immigrants had been using Christmas trees as far back as the 1830's, but this custom took several decades to properly catch on because its pagan origins. However in 1850, the Victoria and Albert woodcut illustration was re-published in Godey's’ Lady's Book’. Godey's had copied it ‘almost’ exactly as it had been seen in England, but the decision was made to remove the Queens crown and Prince Albert’s mustache in an effort to remake the engraving into more of an American style scene. This was the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America, and after subsequent reprints during the 1860’s and 1870s, the putting up of a decorated Christmas tree had become truly ingrained in popular American culture and remains so to this day.

Christmas tree varieties

Although there are many types of Xmas tree that you could choose from there are generally only two varieties that you will come across in the UK market. The first is the traditional tree - the Norway spruce, and the second is today's best seller the Nordmann fir. However, nowadays we are seeing more and more unusual varieties coming onto the shop floors, unfortunately while some of them have excellent qualities they are often not grown in enough numbers or to a high enough standard to take the crown from our other two best sellers. Below is our breakdown of the most likely Xmas tree varieties you will be able to buy in the UK this Christmas..

NORWAY SPRUCE - Picea abies

This beautiful, dark-green spruce is the variety of Christmas tree that brings back all of those childhood memories of Christmas, and it’s also the tree that was introduced to England in the early nineteenth century by the then Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. Its charm is down to its gorgeous piney scent which can fill a room within minutes, but it is at a cost. The essential oils that carry the scent are released from the trees needles as they dry out and of all the trees available at Christmas; this is the variety that will lose its needles the fastest quickest. The main advantage that it has over the other trees other than its wonderful fragrance is that are that they are relatively inexpensive to buy, and if you can find a supplier who keeps them trimmed up on a yearly basis, their trees will have best conical shape of any variety that you will see.

NORDMANN FIR – Abies nordmanniana

Perhaps the most popular tree in the UK today is the Nordmann fir, otherwise known as the needle-fast or low needle drop tree. Living up to its common name it has an uncanny way of holding onto its needles far longer than it has any right to, and this is partially down to its thick sugary sap locking up its precious water.

Along with large, thick leathery needles which are firmly secured to pliable stems, the Nordmann fir easily prevents the server water loss suffered by the Norway spruce. Even when subjected to the harsh, environmental conditions of a domestic radiator their tenacious needles are still reluctant to fall even when they have turned a rather obvious desiccated brown. This leads some owners to spray tired specimens with green paint to maintain the charade of lush greenery health to friends and family. Unfortunately it’s because of their incredible ability to remain hydrated that they have little or no pine scent, and this is really their only downfall. As a specimen, it consists of rich green leaves similar to that of a yew tree, while the branches tend to grow in tiers making the tree ideal for hanging large ornaments from. It is this kind of ability that makes the Nordmann fir Britain’s best selling Christmas tree.

SCOTS PINE – Pinus sylvestris

If you are after something different then there are normally a few unusual specimens to be found if you look hard enough. Popular in the USA is the Scots pine - Pinus sylvestris, however it has yet to take on in a big way in Britain.

Pinus sylvestris is a native to the wilds of Scotland, hence the common name, although is range stretches as far Portugal in the west, east to eastern Siberia, and south to the Caucasus Mountains. Interestingly, the Scots pine is the only pine native to northern Europe!

As a Christmas tree it is known for its dark green foliage and stiff branches which are well suited for decorating with both light and heavy ornaments. Like the Nordmann Fir it has excellent needle retention characteristics and holds up well throughout the Christmas period.

A great alternative to the traditional species, especially if you are considering a larger tree.

NOBLE FIR – Abies procera

The Noble fir is a large evergreen tree native to the Cascade Range and Coast Range mountains of extreme northwest California and western Oregon and Washington in the United States.

Its fast growth and luscious foliage make it an ideal contender for Christmas tree production. It is similar in shape, if not a little more compact, to the Nordmann fir, but it has soft blue-green needles on evenly spaced strong branches perfect for heavy ornaments.

If trimmed during production it will produce a very compact and pleasing shape.

It is arguably more ornamental with exceptional needle retention and a pleasant mild fir scent. If grown in sufficient quantities, it the Noble fir that is most likely to take the crown away from the Nordmann.

FRASER FIR – Abies fraseri

Named after the Scottish botanist John Fraser (1750–1811), Abies fraseri is a species of fir native to the mountains of the eastern United States. It has a great combination of form, needle retention, dark blue-green colour, and pleasant scent and this has led to the Fraser fir being one of the most popular Christmas tree species in North America.

The Fraser fir also has excellent needle retaining properties as well as tightly packed branches which can provide a well shaped and narrow tree. this is particularly useful if space is tight.

Unfortunately the commercial production of Fraser firs for the Christmas tree market is still in its infancy in the UK and so far the quality of Fraser firs grown in this country is usually poor. However, if you can find a good one then you are on to a winner.

DOUGLAS FIR – Pseudotsuga menziesii

Unlike some of the others the Douglas fir is not a true fir , but it can still make for an excellent Christmas tree. It has very dense foliage with an upright branch structure. Color ranges from a medium green to dark green with soft needles that spring back quickly when squeezed in the hand. It has a pleasant evergreen aroma, and while not overpowering, will fill a room with a fresh scent. This tree will hold medium and light weight ornaments nicely.

Driving off to your preferred Xmas tree retailer and choosing the family Christmas tree is right up there as one of the year's great family events. However, try not to look at this pseudo 'Right of Passage' event through rose tinted glasses as - in my experience of selling these horrid creatures - every other sale will involve some kind of a dispute within the family. The truth is that most people have no idea as to what they are buying, yet the dominant male in the family group will always try and take on the role of 'Xmas tree expert'. Sometimes it appears as though God himself has anointed the man with an 'all knowing power' enabling him to choose the very best out of the thousands of tree in stock. Occasionally you will come across a dominant male who will actively insist in seeing every single tree in his price range before a decision is made. Be aware that this scene can  ONLY be prevented from playing out to the very end if he is accompanied by a woman!

So, how do you choose the very best Christmas tree?

Christmas tree
Well, your two biggest concerns should be damage and freshness. If the Xmas trees are still wrapped up in their protective netting then make sure that you ask an assistant to remove the netting so that you can see the tree in its entirety. That way you haven't just driven all the way home with a tree that has a broken or damaged leader. Secondly, ask the assistant to lift the tree and bang the bottom of the trunk on the ground. This will help the branches to open up allowing the tree to reveal its shape. Also, if you see a torrent of needles fall to the ground, you will have a good indication that the tree is not as fresh as perhaps it ought to be. Don't forget to ask the assistant to fit a new net over your chosen Christmas tree otherwise you can almost guarantee damaging it when you try to get it home.

Tree freshness

If you are buying your Xmas tree through a retailer rather than direct from a Xmas tree farm then freshness will be more of an issue. This is because as soon as a Xmas tree has been cut (presuming that you are buying a cut Xmas tree) it will only be able to hold on to its needles as long as it has sufficient moisture inside it. Unfortunately, as trees are living breathing things they are going to be continuously losing water through their needles as part of their normal metabolism.In order to reduce needle loss once you have your tree back at home, ask the assistant to make a fresh cut at the base of the trunk before you leave the store and then - once home - provide a Xmas tree stand that is able to hold a reservoir of water. Don't forget to refill the reservoir with water when it runs out!

This bit is important. If you want a tree that has that lovely Christmas pine smell the you will only get this from a tree that is releasing the smell as it dries out. In that case choose the traditional Xmas tree known as the Norway spruce or Picea abies. If you are not worried about the smell and want the tree to hold on to its needles for as long as possible then choose a 'needle fast or non-drop' variety of Christmas tree such as the Scots pine, Fraser fir, Abies nordmanniana etc

Please be aware that in order for the Xmas tree suppliers to successfully fulfill the orders placed by the retailers, they begin cutting at the end of November and tend to finish by the first week of December. So your tree chosen tree could have been drying out for up to 4 weeks before you buy it. Therefore, if you have bought a tree that has been bound up and sitting around for a couple of weeks, by the time Christmas day has arrived it could be a bare as Mother Hubbard's cupboard! This problem of drying out can be made worse if the weather is unseasonably warm, and if you are displaying your tree next to a working radiator!

Christmas tree
FACT. Don't forget that once your tree is at home and it is stood there all by itself without any others to compare with - they all end up looking pretty much the same.

More so, it it is hidden by decorations and after the second day no-one will bother looking at it much anyway.

So my top tips for buying a Christmas tree is this:

1. Choose a fresh one.
2. Choose an even one
3. Check the height of your ceiling so that you know for sure that the height of the tree + height of your Christmas tree stand + your fairy on the top of it will comfortably fit in your proposed room.
4. Same goes for the width. Check the size of the area that you are going to be positioning your tree so that it will fit.
5. Don't be afraid to cut bits of your tree to make it fit or look more appealing.
6. If your tree is going into the corner of the room you can remove as much of the back of the tree as you like as you won't see it

If I have missed out anything then leave a note in the comments. Merry Xmas and good hunting.

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Mistletoe has always been a bit of an enigma, and although it is a plant that parasitises some of our native deciduous trees, it holds such a serene beauty that it has captured the imagination of European cultures throughout the ages.

Today mistletoe is strongly related to the Christmas celebration, notably used by men as an acceptable excuse to kiss any woman they can by encouraging, persuading or tricking them to stand underneath it.

The traditions that surround the parasitic mistletoe are steeped in European myth, many of which have been passed on generation to generation through centuries of our history. The earliest stories we know of about date back to the Druids, Celts and the Norse who believed that mistletoe possessed strange and magical powers.

It was down to the mystery of the mistletoe's method of reproduction, along with its ability to remain evergreen while over-wintering on dormant,and leafless hosts, that led many cultures to link this plant to spontaneous generation, fertility and aphrodisiacs.

The druids in particular venerated it, especially when found it attached to oak trees. It's believed that they would cut the mistletoe ceremonially from these 'sacred' oaks with a golden knife. After which it would then be used to create medicines which they thought would cure sterility and counteract poisons.
A popular practise in medieval England involved women wishing to conceive. They would wrap mistletoe around their waists and wrists to increase fertility. However in Brittany, Northern France, the plant is known as Herbe de la Croix because it's thought that Christ's cross was made from mistletoe wood. The story goes that mistletoe once used to be a tree in its own right, and it was wood from this tree that was used to make Christ's crucifixion cross. As a punishment for its role in the death of Christ, the mistletoe was cursed, no longer welcome to a place on God's earth. This led the mistletoe to return as it's seen today, as a parasite dependent on other trees for its life.

In ancient Scandinavian, Norsemen saw the mistletoe as a plant of peace. They revered it so much that if they happened to engage in battle beneath it they would laid down their weapons and maintain a truce until the following day.

It's believed that the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe arose from these Northern European legends which went hand-in-hand with another notable Norse story, the myth of Baldur.

Baldur's death and resurrection is one of the most fascinating of all the old Norse myths and is believed to be at the conception of mistletoe being regarded as a "kissing" plant. Baldur's mother was the Norse goddess Frigga, and when he was born she made every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm him.

For some unknown reason she overlooked the fated mistletoe plant and the mischievous Norse god of the Norse Loki decided to take advantage of this. In a tale of treachery the malevolent trickster Loki discovered her oversight and fashioned a dart made from the plant. Then, in a cruel trick, placed it in the hand of Balder's brother Hodor - the God of Darkness - and offered to guide his hand while teaching him to shoot darts. As he did so, he guided the dart directly into Baldur's heart. Frigga's tears of mourning were so wretched that the hapless mistletoe took pity on her. From that time on it bore milky white berries that were formed from her tears. This was the demise of Baldur- a vegetation deity in the Norse myths - and it was the sadness of his death that brought winter into the world. Eventually other Norse gods took pity on her and restored Baldur life back to him. Overjoyed, Frigga pronounced the mistletoe sacred and ordered that it should be used to bring love into the world instead of death. Complying with Frigga's wishes, any two people passing under the mistletoe would now celebrate Baldur's resurrection by kissing underneath it.

Over time these myths transposed themselves into eighteenth-century England when at Christmas time a young lady standing under some mistletoe could not refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship, but if the girl remained unkissed then she could not expect to marry until after the following year. In some parts of England the tradition is slightly different believing that anyone who kissed underneath mistletoe would be cursed never to marry. Here the tradition is to burn the mistletoe on the twelfth night as this will break the curse.

Elsewhere in England the mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens around Christmas time, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it. For every kiss they pluck a berry from the bush, but once the berries are gone the privilege ceases.

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