Big Tree, Little Boxes

When we decorate the Christmas tree this year (some time this week), there will be something missing.

Several things in fact.

When my son started primary school aged four, there was a fundraising fair towards the end of the Christmas term, which included a stall selling decorations. I bought two for the children:  each with a teddy-bear riding a rocking horse. One was behaving in a proper manner and the other was lying on its back being silly. I decided at that point that these would be the start of a collection for each of my children. The good teddy was for my daughter and the naughty teddy was for my son, because at the time this is precisely how both of them would have behaved when faced with a rocking horse or in fact in any situation you could think of. Nowadays however, I suspect my daughter would be standing in the saddle and my son (who has been sky-diving in his time) would be eyeing the rocking horse with deep suspicion.

Over the following eighteen years, we and the children’s grandparents added to the boxes. Every Christmas, the children would decide where their own decorations should go on the tree and put them there. The idea was that ultimately, when they had homes of their own, they’d have their own little box of decorations which would be a little bit of their ‘home-home’ that they’d be take with them to put on their own trees.

A couple of weeks ago, I handed my son’s box of decorations to him, because now – at last – he does have his own place. It felt like a bit of a watershed. The little boy who’d have caused havoc with a rocking horse, is now a young adult with a grown up job and the sort of tenancy that needs you to have a grown up job. 

I’m not sure where the time has gone. Once – just over twenty-nine years ago – there was just me and my husband with an artificial Christmas tree that my in-laws had given us (it was then about ten years old) about to celebrate our first married Christmas.

I bought what were the latest tasteful 1990s decorations and spent ages placing them evenly, but my husband ‘wrecked’ the effect by adding some multi-coloured lights which clashed completely as I’d made the tree ‘too serious and sensible’. (This sort of summed our differences in personality at marriage which is to some extent which is why a good many people thought we’d never get past that first Christmas, let alone our first year.) 

Then years passed and there were first three of us and then four of us, with the same old tree. Apart from a few rather expensive (for a mum of two small children working part-time) baubles I bought out of social embarrassment (long story), the decoration collection grew steadily more eclectic. When they were being randomly placed by little hands, all attempts at symmetry, co-ordination (and to some extent taste) went out of the window and never came back. By Christmas Eve everything would be done, and all four of us would be waiting for the grandparents to arrive.

This Christmas it’s all change again. There will be the same old tree (now nearly forty years of age and still going strong), but there will be just two of us decorating it, and this year, even the children and my son’s partner won’t arrive until Christmas Eve only an hour or so before the grandparents. It’s one of the oddest things to get our heads round: the children coming home almost as if they’re guests. (The novelty wears off quite quickly as they revert straight back into the nest in baby-bird mode – ‘Feed me! Feed me!’ while bickering and playing video games and leaving doors open despite the cost of heating.)

I didn’t think to take a photograph of my son’s box before I handed it over. The picture below is of my daughter’s. She has technically left home too, but she’s still living in her student digs with a lot of other people, so it’s not quite her own place yet and she’s not ready to take the box away with her.

Perhaps it’s time for me and my husband to start making our own little collection of special decorations to replace the ones that are in the children’s boxes. 

But I don’t think I’ll waste time worrying if they’re tasteful or in vogue, or co-ordinate. I’ll just embrace the joyous, colourful silliness of Christmas decorating – that bit of brightness in the miserable dark of midwinter. There’s enough to be worrying about in life – I’ve long learned that trying to be sensible really isn’t one that’s worth the effort.

Fun facts: when I was researching what the Victorians put on their Christmas trees apart from candles for a memory of Margaret’s in The Treacherous Dead(relevant extract below the picture), I found this fascinating website which has photographs of some very bright and unusual Victorian trees and some rather alarming patriotic baubles (zeppelins anyone?) http://www.victoriana.com/Victorian_Christmas/Christmas_in_the_Victorian_Times.html. And if you want to know about the history of Christmas decorations and and how long it took turkeys to walk – yes walk – to London from East Anglia here’s another fascinating article: https://www.countryfile.com/go-outdoors/days-out/top-10-quirky-christmas-traditions/

Extract from The Treacherous Dead

A hollow clatter made Margaret look round. Juniper was batting a red and white glass ball towards the wall. She snatched it away and held it in her palm. ‘Mother gave this to me to put on the Christmas tree. Katherine had a blue one. I’d forgotten. How lovely.’

Fox had fallen silent but Margaret wasn’t paying attention. The bauble brought a sudden, sharp image of her mother: the face of a woman younger than Margaret was now, with much redder hair dressed in curls and ringlets. As the image faded, other memories took over: scents of lavender and cinnamon, pine and candles; the swish of a silk dress and the crackle of a winter fire; pine needles pricking as Margaret was lifted in warm arms to hang the glass ball in a Christmas tree’s branches.

‘Perhaps you should deal with the rest,’ said Fox. His face was pale. A bundle of letters tied in pink ribbon had risen to the top. ‘Who are these from? Or don’t I want to know?’

Margaret took the letters. ‘Honestly, Fox, look at their age and the address.’ Pink dye stained the envelopes where it had touched them. The paper was yellowed, the address her sister Katherine’s. ‘These are twelve years old. They were from someone called Joel Gifford. He was a doctor.’

‘Was?’

‘He died in Kimberley aged twenty-six.’

‘Oh,’ said Fox. ‘Kimberley, South Africa? Boer War?’ 

‘Yes. He was an army medic and he died during the siege.’ Margaret tried to picture Joel and failed. She had no photographs: just his letters and a memory of pleasant evenings in quiet restaurants. ‘We were friends.’

‘Just friends?’

Margaret touched the letters. ‘Perhaps if he’d lived it might have become something more, but he didn’t. These aren’t love letters. They’re descriptions of South Africa, his cases, his opinions and his responses to my ideas and attempts to get a good job. I haven’t looked at them for years.’ She put them on the floor. ‘I should have burnt them when I married Owen, but I didn’t. I suppose I should have done it when I fell in love with you, but I’d forgotten them. I’ll do it now.’

‘Why?’ Fox reached for her hand. ‘I still have Cynthia’s letters. I haven’t read those since 1896, but she’s part of who I am. Do you want me to burn those?’

‘Of course not, Fox! She was your wife.’ 

Fox returned Joel’s letters to the box, tucking the mantilla over the top. ‘Memories of people we loved are things we should keep. It’s the bad memories we should burn.’

They sat in silence, staring at the box. A movement alerted Margaret to Juniper reaching for the bauble again. ‘Good grief,’ she said. ‘This is rather maudlin. It’s quite unlike us.’

‘I’ve been away too long.’ Fox pulled her into a hug and kissed her slowly. ‘We need to stop tidying and get reacquainted. Then we’ll be in a fit state to start arguing again.’

[The Treacherous Dead will be published as an ebook on 29th December 2022. The paperback will be out sooner. The decoration may not be relevant, but it’s just possible the rest is…]

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

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