The Nightmare of Christmas Trees is upon us.

Every year for almost the last twenty years, I’ve done the wiring / safety for the St Francis Christmas Tree Festival in Welwyn Garden City.

How did I get into it? I got asked, when I was “otherwise distracted” I.E. in a pub drinking a pint of good beer. This is one of my weakest links, and how I’ve been persuaded to do many things where I’ve ended up going “Andrew : WHY THE FUCK did you ever agree to that?”, including how I ended up doing the interminable tour of Harrison “Tuneless Git” Birtwistle’s “Bow Down”, which is horrible, disgusting and tedious all at the same time – and as for following the bloody score…

What is a Christmas Tree Festival? It’s where teams enter decorated christmas trees into a competition. There’s usually half a dozen prizes, including “Best Tree”, “Second Best Tree”, “Most Original Tree”, “Audience Choice” etc. I keep asking them to let me award a prize for “Most Dangerous Tree”, but apparently that’s the wrong attitude. Bah!

It raises money for several charities, particularly including the Scouts and  Guides. I approve of the Scouts and the Guides: They help make sure that some of the next generation have the guts, initiative and application to get off their arses and actually do stuff, whilst also making better human beings out of them and giving them loads of fun at the same time.

Originally, the festival had 40 to 50 trees, this has steadily grown to around 70 to 80 trees. The first problem is getting power to 80 odd trees in an essentially open plan building which only has two twin sockets in it.

For this purpose I made two custom extension cables using DP switched, metal clad sockets, wired with heavy duty 1.5sqmm flex, held together with cable glands. Each cable is arranged oughly in the form of an “H” and is fed via an RCD adaptor. Nothing is taped to the floor – where I have to cross gangways, the cables are flown on catenary wires, so the building is now riddled with the hooks for those wires in various hidden places.

The first recurring task is all this cabling must be tested every year, and overhauled every couple of years. Despite using heavy duty cable and sockets, the wear and tear is significant: dents, chips, loose cables, cable snags. The cabling lives a hard life. When I first did this, I felt guilty for over specifying everything, I was wrong to feel guilty.

Once everything, including the wiring and treess are in place, the entrants decorate their trees. We offer them a “flying, temporary” supply so they can adjust their lights, then they must disconnect them and we come and inspect each tree before we make the permanent connection.

We check for the following:

*Presence of the required “rating label” on the lights, so we can identify everything that we need to look for.
*Correct Fuse.
*All lamps lit (especially if they’re in series).
*The correct number of fuse bulb fitted (as required) with one fuse bulb in each circuit.
*BS approved plug, cable clamped, correctly wired and tightened, no stray strands.
*No cable damage etc.

If it is a low voltage set, we check to make sure the markings are correct and intact, and it’s not on a “naughty lists” of known, dodgy lights. Ultimately if “we don’t like the look of it”, it gets replaced.

Including writing up notes, it takes an average of about 5 to ten minutes a tree. We seal the plug into the socket with tape on each tree as we complete it.

In the early years, the results were appalling – around 20% of trees were dangerous and required attention. Usually we just fixed them – we stocked bulbs and other spares. Repairing has now mostly become impractical – too many variants of bulb, mostly unlabeled. If the decorators supply spares, we’ll try and use them. Otherwise we keep a small stock of sets to use as replacements. FAR quicker and easier. The entrants have learned to check their lights before putting them on the tree, to avoid the nightmare of taking it all off again if they’re faulty.

There was a certain veterinary practice that shall remain nameless who entered a tree every year. Each year it came with a different set of fundamentally buggered lights, which we would sort out and send back safe and working. They did this every year for about six years. Am I cynical about this? You bet I am.

There’s a certain Guide company who delivered a safety nightmare every year, year after year. In the end I spoke to the chief and offered to give them a talk on Xmas tree light safety – which they took up! they’ve been fine ever since.

And there’s a Youth Club, who shall be nameless, who entered a tree with a flex, with a 13A Plug at one end (fully wired and with a 13A fuse installed), and stripped, bare copper wires dangling on the floor at the other end. The plug was down where toddlers could easily plug it in, and the bare wires were at the other end, lying on the floor. I assumed they were deliberately taking the piss. They weren’t. 🙁

A few of the trees are dull, most of them are interesting and nicely done in some way or other. A handful every year are special, fantastical. They make it worthwhile.

We don’t usually enter a tree, but a decade or so ago, someone chided me for being “cynical and negative in my write-ups and If I thought it was so bloody easy then why didn’t I enter a tree and show them how it was done?”. So we did, and we won too.

Any, pissing about with the wiring starts Tuesday, and I’ll be testing trees next Thursday and Friday.

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