There is a health warning that comes with writing about Christmas trees. I feel I need at least a couple of caveats to say who I am in writing this (and who I’m not):
I’m not a Christmas tree decorator: fresh with new ideas and seasonal themes. (I quite like the odd blue tree, now and then, but it’s not what I have in my Christmas decorations box.)
I’m not here to have the debate about when the Christmas tree should go up. (I will confess it took me by surprise when I learned that some families in the States put up their Christmas tree straight after Hallowe’en.
But then there seem to be so many variants on this, including putting up the tree on Christmas Eve itself, that there really doesn’t seem to be one pattern to follow. Other than,
I think it’s fair to say, enjoying it when you do.)
I am a fan of real Christmas trees – but I do understand if you are not. (That’s why the eco box is ticked, folks, but also because I have specific memories about real Christmas trees, which I am happy to continue to re-experience as best I can.)
There. Cards on the table (if not pegged to strings, hanging from stairs, and so on).
I think I can now begin.
I hope you are sitting comfortably, because it often seems to take longer to unpack a box of Christmas decorations than it does to actually put them up. Just saying.
There was the memorable year when we did the proper thing, bought the tree with roots, planted it in the garden after Christmas. Whereupon it waited until November the next year to turn yellow and give up the ghost.
So as a result, the trees I remember had a certain pattern of Effort connected with them.
The tree would be acquired, yes, but then it would sit in a bucket of water in the garage until The Time arrived to bring it into the house.
(I can’t tell you when the time was, of course. See rules above.)
The tree would be brought into the sitting room, followed by a certain amount of puffing over getting it upright in its stand, putting Christmas paper round to hide the bucket.
The second Herculean task, in the old days, was (part 1) the unwrapping of the Christmas lights and (part 2) the painstaking working your way along the string, working out which bulb needed replacing so that the whole string would then shine when you plugged them in.
Only after these tasks were completed, and the lights were onto the tree, could the decorating begin. And while the decorating took place, the music played. (I am working up to telling you about the music.)
I suspect that everyone has their favourites when it comes to Christmas decorations.
With a younger brother to contend with, there might be small skirmishes over who got to hang up which items.
I suspect also that there are some decorations which one family member dislikes but another champions enthusiastically. So I loved the little cardboard angels, finger puppet size, that you could pop over the end of a branch.
My liking for them was tolerated – and when I was old enough to be doing my own Christmas tree, they were passed on to me. So everyone’s happy in the end, really.
I think the thing about decorating the tree is that it feels like it’s really and truly Christmas soon. The magic starts in earnest, even if it officially began earlier in the month with the advent calendar.
I think it’s also fair to say that parents are keen to see children decorating the tree. There’s something about the ooing and aahing over particular decorations that a child can do.
It gets the adult in that particular spot where that little flicker of magic still exists inside.
(A pilot light in our Christmas boiler? Why not.)
I know our own first family Christmas did something to stoke the heat again. The fervour isn’t always the same every year, of course.
I realise now that we approach the Christmas tree decorating the way we approach many familiar tasks in December: with a freshness and anticipation (if we’re lucky), or with a certain tiredness and grumpiness (depending on how much else has been going on).
When decorating the tree is the gold standard for setting the Christmas mood, anything other than joy and wonder doesn’t work. And that can lead to disappointment, tears and other things that you really didn’t want to receive for Christmas.
All I can predict here is that the mood will change year by year. The importance of it, the impact of the tree (especially at night, with lights lit) will be different at different times.
That’s OK. I think of it a little like an attempt to make a plant bloom, at a time of year when many plants are looking thin, leafless, and rather chilly.
The effect won’t last forever (at least not with a real tree). Needles drop, trees yellow, ornaments sag after a bit. (To say nothing of the dangers of marauding cats.)
But at a cold, dark time of year, it’s good to dream of trees that grow. Of plants that bloom. Of stumps that put forth shoots.
It begins in the cold time, when growth is happening, but we can’t yet see it. We hasten it along a little, by our own efforts.
It’s not the tree of life, not by a long shot. But it can remind us of it, if we choose.