Terry Prone: Weirdly, tree thefts show how much we value our Christmas traditions

Operation Hurdle, which aims to prevent theft of Christmas trees, highlights how much we crave the traditional tree this year
Terry Prone: Weirdly, tree thefts show how much we value our Christmas traditions

It’s a world away from our sense of a cosy Christmas, but the ‘ring of steel’ and air support involved in Operation Hurdle underlines how much we love our real Christmas trees. Picture: iStock

At a meeting the other day, one of the participants nicked the chunk of dark chocolate off the top of a muffin.

No concealment about it. She considered the fell deed and then openly did it. Left the muffin missing its toupee, but didn’t contaminate it in any way.

Took the best bit and didn’t waste calories on the rest. I’d have copied her except the other muffins were blueberry and you can’t go picking purple blobs off cakes in public. Also, I’m not great at thievery.

Everybody in the school I went to seems to have shoplifted. Pilfering lipsticks and sweets amounted to a rite of passage, undertaken in the comforting certainty that, if caught, middle class girls like them would not do time.

Pilfering sweets was a childhood rite of passage. Stock image
Pilfering sweets was a childhood rite of passage. Stock image

Doing time was not my terror. My terror was my mother, who had eyes in the back of her head and a direct link to the KGB, the latter ensuring (a) she knew you were doing bad stuff long before you did it and (b) the interrogation was so ghastly, you’d confess to invading the Isle of Man if accused of it.

I did, however, steal from my father’s tobacco-scented overcoat, hanging under the stairs in that dark triangular space all 1950s suburban Dublin homes had. It was evil. I never got caught.

I’m sorry I did it. But I did it more than once. Well, OK, maybe 10 times.

Da kept a clean hanky in the right-hand pocket of his overcoat and, underneath that, some small change.

I ignored the pennies and shillings (yes, children, this was back in prehistory when barter had only recently gone out of style) and went for the half crown. The half crown was serious money. Bit of heft to it. It could buy loads of Honey Caps and Crispins.

In theory, it would only be worth about 14c today, but it bought a lot for under-age criminals. And if I’d only kept one of the big silvery coins, I’d get anything from €100 to €4,000 for it today.

I didn’t keep one, of course. The bloody things nearly burned a hole in my hand, I was so eager to get rid of them before I got caught handling stolen goods. Goods stolen from a man who would probably have given the money to me had I asked for it — although he might have interrogated me to see if I had a productive purpose, Brendan Prone being, along with John Hume, one of the founders of the credit union movement in Ireland.

Christmas tree farmer Christy Kavanagh preparing trees for market on his farm in Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow. Picture: Chris Bellew/Fennells
Christmas tree farmer Christy Kavanagh preparing trees for market on his farm in Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow. Picture: Chris Bellew/Fennells

The guilt stays with me to such an extent that I dread my sister reading this because, to this day, she has no idea what a wicked sibling she has.

My sister would never steal anything from anybody and may never have told a lie in her life, although sometimes you wish she’d learn how to. (My son is too young to
remember half crowns and too old to be ashamed of his mother.)

Going straight after I left school wasn’t that hard, because of the guilt, so I have never pilfered anything since then. Indeed, so punctilious am I about what’s mine and what’s not mine that last week when I discovered a lime in the trolley — an unpaid-for lime, imagine — as I packed groceries into the car, I went all the way back upstairs in Lidl to confess to the cashier, which earned me her lifelong hatred because Lidl’s systems aren’t geared for late-onset customer guilt and we agreed it wouldn’t be hygienic to just throw it back into the lime section.

The only thing I learned from my early currency thievery was that you were best advised to steal something you can palm because
it was small and also something amenable to quick and easy money-laundering. Larcenists who rob big things such as cinema-style flat-screen televisions are puzzling.

I mean, what do you say to the garda who happens along as you and your pal carry it under your arms to the van and asks you the name of the owner of the house you’ve just left, which now boasts a big blank space on the sitting-room wall as well as a smashed window? 

Which brings me to Nick Bramhill’s news story on the back page of this paper just before the weekend, about a major garda operation going on right now.

Operation Hurdle involves nightly air patrols, high-visibility checkpoints, and armed support units. Yep, armed support units. We’re way beyond half-crown territory, here.

Operation Hurdle is happening in Wicklow, where they’re presumably used to An Garda Síochána’s helicopter lawnmowering its way through their skies, because — I take Bramhill’s word for this — it has previously been “a hugely successful initiative” and growers are enthusiastic about it taking place again this year, because their crops are looking good and demand would appear to be up on last year.

People apparently want real Christmas trees this Yuletide, hence the gardaí bringing out the big guns, metaphorically but potentially in real terms, to prevent the plundering of firs, particularly in Wicklow, by Dublin-based gangs.

Many Yuletide traditions need to be abolished but having a real Christmas tree is one we should preserve. Picture: iStock  
Many Yuletide traditions need to be abolished but having a real Christmas tree is one we should preserve. Picture: iStock  

Counterintuitive, that. We associate crime gangs with little packets of cellophane-wrapped powder, light to carry, easy to transfer, and even easier to toss down a shore if blue-uniformed forces of the law hove to. Christmas trees would be more of a challenge.

You’d have to get out your chainsaw and be willing enough and expert enough to cut down trees without amputating one of your own limbs or having the bole fall on your head.

This in the dark, presumably, because daylight robbery may work in suburban homes where owners are at work at the time, but would be a bit obvious out on a Wicklow hill.

Then you have to have a truck and strong cord and it all seems to call for a level of fitness and commitment one doesn’t associate with crime gangs.

But, according to my colleague Nick Bramhill, before the garda “ring of steel” was put in place in 2012, some 2,000 trees were taken every year by Dublin gangs from isolated forests.

Multiply the average price of a Christmas tree by 2,000 and you’re talking a nice profit right before Christmas. Operation Hurdle sets out to prevent that and apparently has a pretty good track record which becomes more relevant at a time when more people than ever are looking to buy sustainable, rather than plastic, trees for their Christmas celebrations.

Real trees — with their gorgeous smell, their family-uniting challenges of erection and proper decoration, and ceremonial stripping on the sixth of January — are a tradition worth keeping and reviving. As opposed to things like plum puddings filled with suet, Christmas cakes enwrapped in fat-sweaty marzipan and brick-hard sugar icing, crackers with those pointless explosions plus humourless jokes and Elf the Enforcer intimidating children with blackmailing threats of diminished largesse if they don’t behave.

Many if not most Yuletide traditions need abolishing. Real Christmas trees excepted.

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