Christmas Tree Topiary from North Allerton

At the end of the Christmas holidays in the dark days of Winter everyone needs to let off a little steam. This may explain why the Christmas Tree Topiary contest in North Allerton is so popular with people eager to reshape their Christmas Trees after spending many tedious and argumentative hours with their families.


On January 5th, people come to the main street of the town with their trees and then between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. they can register for the topiary contest in one of three categories of shaping device: nail clippers (for trees under three feet high), scissors and secateurs (for trees under 10 feet high), and chain saws (10 feet and over).


The contest started in 1862. The chain saw category, added in 1978, replaced the kitchen knife category, which was dropped from the contest at the advice of the police after the 1977 contest ended in bitter recriminations and much bloodletting. Obviously families had been hard to deal with that Christmas.


At 10 a.m. sharp competitors are allocated a place on the main street and asked to place their trees in this area. At 10:15 the Cutting Contest Chief shouts “Prepare thy Implements for Carving” and then one minute later he continues “Start to Cut.” The contestants then have four hours to shape their trees into something recognizable and aesthetically pleasing.


There are some very strict rules: competitors can’t interfere with the carving of anyone else’s tree even if they think that something rude is being shaped, though they can draw the Taste Judge’s attention in such an eventuality. Anyone producing an offensive display can be disqualified sine die if the object is deemed to be unsuitable for public viewing. An example of this happened in 1971 when Sidney Hines’ attempt to carve a penis was thwarted by the Taste Judge despite Sidney’s claims that it was a Saturn V rocket with unusually shaped fuel tanks.


No-one is allowed to bring any sprays into the contest area. This rule is in place to stop defoliants spoiling the contest. This was after an anti-Vietnam War protest in 1967 when several people tried to infiltrate the contest area with bottles containing Agent Orange. The protest might have been successful if they hadn’t been shouting “Stop Bombing Laos” and wearing masks whilst carrying their Christmas trees.


Two people have dominated the contest over the years. Angela Spratt won the nail clipper contest 17 times between 1932 and 1961, carving beautiful birds and squirrels from her trees with great skill. She used Christmas decorations to represent the animal’s eyes and plumage or fur to great effect. Her greatest achievement was a lyre bird, which won in 1952. This carving scored 98 out of 100 in each of the three judging classes: technical achievement, tastefulness, and artistic merit.


Dan Smethurst won the scissors contest 16 times in the period 1891 to 1919; he was the local barber and had a tendency to practice on his customers during the year by way of preparing for the event. His favourite subjects were dogs and his carvings of canines were both life size and accurate. In the 1910s he concentrated on creating poodles, which won him many contests but lost him many customers as people didn’t appreciate having a haircut with small rounded balls lining their head.


There has been some controversy in the contest largely because of the Minimalist School of Topiary and their belief in The Green Pyramid system. They maintain that a Christmas tree is a work of art in itself and doesn’t need to be changed much by the shaper for it to be beautiful – they decree that a tree shaped like a Green Pyramid is the perfection of nature and should be judged as such at the contest.


Mike Johnson is their most vocal adherent “In our opinion it’s senseless to make a tree look like a dog or canary – something which it is not; it makes sense to help the tree bring out the perfect tree within itself and for it to be appreciated for that perfection. We help the tree be the best tree it can be.”


Unfortunately, The Green Pyramid movement has never won a prize at the Topiary contest, largely because they have normally finished their shaping after about five minutes and spend the rest of the time in the pub. They then normally heckle the winners at the awards ceremony, which doesn’t win them many friends in North Allerton.

This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker

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