It has been a few years since we decided not to have a real Christmas tree.
Our decision was not a comment on the bizarre ritual of placing a dead tree in the middle of your home, but rather on the practicalities of the exercise.
However much you may enjoy your first days in the tree’s company – when it is still green and smells wonderfully fresh – it does not compensate for the sea of needles it drops on the floor (and continue to get stuck in your socks in July) or the myriad tiny wounds it inflicts upon your body as you wrestle its rotting remains to a cold January curbside.
So, we bought a fake tree. We thought it would be easier.
For eleven months of the year it is stored in our basement where, you’d be excused for thinking, it does nothing but gather dust. However, it seems the tree has an unruly side that it is unable to control during the off season.
Each year it mocks me.
Once restored to its seasonal position, I notice the small white lights that twelve months ago adorned the tree with an eye-pleasing, even distribution, are now bunched together like five year olds chasing a soccer ball.
At least, the lights that are still working are bunched together.
Vast expanses of sinister darkness now engulf areas where twinkling lights once proudly shone.
With a sigh, I begin the annual quest to follow the string of lights around the most improbable turns among the branches in search of the link between the last working light and the first dead one.
A couple of hours later, I find it and reach for the spare bulbs.
At that point, I am reminded that every string of Christmas lights ever produced is unique. Not a single one of the dozens of marginally different replacement bulbs rolling around in the bottom of the box is the same as the bulb I need to change. Suggestive of the evil machinations of a festive lighting saboteur, even the replacements originally provided with the partially-functioning string don’t fit.
After a few choice words, I give up and begin the task of manipulating the huddled mass of still functioning lights as well as I can to fill the dark voids. Finally accepting defeat, I proceed to turn the tree on its base until I settle upon the aspect I am most likely to get away with.
In general, three hours will have elapsed since the tree was placed in position. And every year, I signal the end of the task with a resigned, “That’ll do.”
These words also announce that the decorating phase has commenced.
Multiple boxes packed with hundreds of ornaments are strategically arranged around the tree. As if reading from a script, we look at the tree, look down at the ornaments and take it in turns to say, “These can’t possibly all fit.”
But, I learned long ago, this isn’t simply an exercise in making everything fit. Tree decoration has rules to be followed; they are many and varied, and include:
1. Similarly shaped ornaments must not be placed in close proximity to one another. Some compromise is permitted at the end of the decorating process, provided that the “colour rule” (see below) is not also broken.
2. There must not be a preponderance of decorations of similar colours in the same area, irrespective of their shape and size.
3. Dangling objects must be allowed to dangle freely, unimpeded by branches below. Those branches may need to be twisted to create the necessary space.
4. In order to accentuate their charms, clear glass and crystal ornaments must be placed in front of a light.
5. Any old, ugly or aesthetically unfortunate ornament gifts must be placed out of sight at the back of the tree. This allows you to honestly confirm to any giver of such gifts that, of course, the ornament is always on the tree, while also being able to avoid the hardship of actually having to look at it for three weeks.
In a surprisingly short amount of time, we find ourselves looking at empty boxes and a beautifully decorated tree; each of us silently acknowledging the rules that allowed this to happen.
And then, as I step back to admire our work, my eyes are drawn to an apparently random selection of ornaments dotted around the tree.
They are the mementoes of our lives.
There’s a faded, shocking pink ball with haphazardly applied glitter that marked my wife’s first Christmas. Close by hangs a crystal star with a gold ribbon that marks our daughter’s same milestone.
Selections of increasingly successful elementary school art remind me of the young girl – covered in paint or plaster or glitter – proudly holding each finished article.
In the handful of homemade ornaments, I remember my wife’s concentration and precision as she sat for hours at the kitchen table, surrounded by coloured beads and thread that she somehow managed to manipulate to form uniquely beautiful designs.
A thumb-sized Russian church recalls a chance meeting in an unexpected city; that intoxicating, infuriating, infectious city where we started to make our history.
An earthenware blue and white Delft Santa, an Irish Claddagh, an Icelandic snowflake, and the bright pinks and reds of a Chinese lantern, merely hint at 20 years of life-shaping experiences, fresh perspectives, and the deeper understanding of ourselves – and the world around us – we’ve gained along the way.
Together, they tell of the unparalleled joy of our shared experiences. They are a young girl’s wide-eyed smile on Christmas morning; they are a hand held on a stroll through an unfamiliar foreign town; they are the stories of our lives.
They are us.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll return the tree to its place in the basement. I will leave it with a steely stare, daring it to do its worst. We’ll have more real history to share with our faux Christmas tree next year.
18th December 2016