Deck the Halls! Christmas Bling ding-a-ling-ling

We put our Christmas tree up on Monday. A little early for us, but due to staff holidays and sickness I’m pulling a lot of overtime right now and am working all weekend (think of the money) so it was really the only day we had spare. Now normally we have a whopping 8 to 9-foot tree – being a Victorian property we have ridiculously high ceilings – but this year decided to restrain ourselves to a 6’ one instead. We also changed where we put it.

Traditionally, it has stood in the corner by the window which means I have to dismantle and move my writing deck upstairs and store it in my bedroom. Well, this year I just couldn’t face that. There’s also the financial side of it. Real trees aren’t cheap. 9’ real trees definitely aren’t cheap, and as we’re aiming for a low-cost Christmas this year, a smaller tree seemed more sensible all around.

So, early Monday morning I loaded Miss F and her best friend Miss A into my tiny Nissan Micra and were on the doorstep of Blackthorpe Barn where we buy our trees every year. Those of you who’ve been following my blog since the beginning, will remember that’s where Miss F had her prom. Going that early on a Monday morning meant the place was deserted and we had the pick of the freshly cut trees.

Restraining ourselves to only looking in the 5-6’ section was harder than I thought it would be, but I stood firm, despite all Miss F’s entreaties. Then we spotted a pretty little tree that really stood out from all the others due to the odd lime green colour of some of its branches. The Christmas tree guy had no explanation for it, other than it might have grown on a mineral deposit of some kind, but assured us it was perfectly healthy, just… different. Being perfectly healthy just different myself, that settled it.

Then we had to get it home. One adult, two teenagers and a six-foot tree in a Nissan Micra was an interesting challenge, but luckily it’s only a ten-minute drive home and I was able to see through the foliage – just. The girls then went to college and I was left to heave the wet, muddy tree into the house, locate where I’d put the pot last year and attempt to set it up myself. I thought it would be easier than most years when I manhandle a nine-footer into submission, but it was harder. It was going to be stood on top of a pair of storage boxes that stand by the sofa and act as a side table. I tried putting the pot on the table first then lifting the tree into it. No go. I simply couldn’t see the pot to manoeuvre the tree trunk into it. Eventually, I had to put the tree in the pot on the ground, fasten it securely and then lift the whole thing, pot and all, into position. It’s a good thing I’m as strong as an ox and was also stubbornly determined that I would get it up there.

Then I had to play that ever popular game of “do the lights work”? Yes, they did. I then had to play the even more popular game of untangling them. Why is it, no matter how carefully you put them away one year, they’re always tangled the next. Usually we have two strings of 200 lights each, but this little tree only needed one. I filled the pot with cold water, put the tree skirt on and positioned the angel on top of the tree. Our angel is a very grand affair, bought over twenty years ago, it has real feathers sprayed gold for wings, porcelain face and hands and real fur lining its velvet robes.

Then I stopped and went no further, until the girls came home from college (somehow Miss A had ended up being invited to stay for dinner and help decorate) and we lit the fire, put on cheesy Christmas tunes and I heated up some mulled wine.

I couldn’t help but remember all those Christmases past when I was a child. My dad never really had any part of the Christmas decorating rituals, other than going up into the loft to bring all the boxes and bags of ornaments and tinsel down and, of course, the desperately fake Christmas tree. In the seventies, I don’t really remember anyone having a real tree. I suppose people must have done – posh people – but not the likes of us. Nope, plastic was fantastic and never mind about all that fire-retardant nonsense, if one of those babies went up in flames in the night, it would have been death by chemical inhalation all the way.

The tree we had all through my childhood was a shade of green unknown to nature, straight up it loomed with dead straight green tinsel branches sticking out at angles. No attempt had been made to make it look natural, this tree flaunted its fakery with pride. Looking back, I shudder, but as a child I didn’t care. It was a tree and it was pretty, and when it was all lit up in a darkened room, I felt it had been transported here direct from fairyland.

My mother too played the “do the lights b****y work” game every year as well. Back then, Christmas lights were expensive, and you really expected them to last a lifetime. We had big, brightly coloured bulbous ones – tasteful white lights were unthought of – and I remember her borrowing the next door neighbours soldering iron to weld wires back together on the tiled hearth, before my father came home and lost his temper about lights that had broken down a mere ten years after purchase. Nowadays, I’m thrilled if my lights last two Christmases. They don’t make them the way they used to.

I don’t know if other people do it differently, but for my family the lights always go on first. That way you can push them into the heart of the tree and hide wires along the branches. Then the tinsel goes on. Back in the seventies, it was always a case of how much tinsel can one tree hold? That and a bit more. Shimmering ropes of gold and silver, blue, red and green, we put them all on until the tree was blinged out more than a number one rap artist.

Then came the ornaments. Looking back, I remember my parents having some lovely ones, all glass of course, although towards the end of my childhood I do remember the odd plastic one creeping in. Year after year, the same ornaments would come out and my brother and I would greet each one with cries of joyful recognition. They seemed like old friends to us and we would fight over who put on which favoured ones. I once knew someone who threw away all her ornaments after Christmas each year and then the next would pick a new theme and buy all new to match. My horror knew no bounds, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her kids. Part of the joy of Christmas decorating is that sense of tradition and familiarity. You haven’t seen these ornaments all year and it gives a feeling of continuity when they are carefully unwrapped and lovingly placed.

There was a trio of yellow, plastic teddy bears sporting little gold bow ties which were particularly loved. We would each take one – mum, my brother and I – and carefully pick three perfect places for them to go. Several years ago, at a family lunch, my mother announced she was getting rid of all her old and rather tired ornaments and would be buying new. My brother and I looked at each other in horror.

“What? Not the teddy bears?”

“Yes, those old things can go.”

“No! You can’t throw the teddy bears away!”

“Well, you can have them if you’ve that fond of them.”

My brother and I looked at each other.

“There’s only three,” I said. “How do we split them?”

“Oh, I don’t want those tatty old things on my tree,” he replied. “I just didn’t want mum to throw them away.”

So, I inherited all three. The little trio that has been together for fifty years has stayed together. Both Miss F and I love them, their appearance each year is greeted with happy recognition, and although we had a much smaller tree this year and many hard decisions had to be made about which ornaments to use and which not, there was never any question that the yellow teddy bears would not once again sport their gold bow ties this Christmas.

The first Christmas after I’d left home, I was so poor I only managed to scrape together enough money to buy a small tree and a string of lights, but friends came to the rescue. Coming around one evening they sat and made a variety of decorations out of popcorn, tissue paper, the inside of cigarette packets, beer bottle lids punched through and strung on string, ring pulls threaded together and a very impressive star made from an old cereal box and tinfoil. It was an unusual tree, but I still have very fond memories of it, and even fonder memories of the friends who gathered around it to help me celebrate my first Christmas of independence.

The following year I was again a bit hard up after buying presents but bought a job lot of cheap plastic baubles and some tinsel. Then I splurged the last of my pennies on a pair of beautiful golden glass twisted ornaments. Hellishly expensive, they stood out on my tree like thoroughbreds at a donkey sanctuary and I loved them. They were gorgeous and special, and it made me determined to bring the rest of my tree up to match. So, every year since that first one all those decades ago, I have treated myself to one beautiful ornament.

Then tragedy struck. One Christmas Eve eighteen years ago, my then husband and I were laying up the table in the dining room ready for lunch the next day. Everyone was coming to us for Christmas, so we were determined that everything had to be perfect. Suddenly, there was a loud bang from the lounge, rushing through we found the door blocked and had to force our way in only to find, much to our absolute horror, that the Christmas tree had fallen over. One of the supporting legs on the plastic pot it was in had snapped and the whole lot had gone down with force into the fireplace.

Luckily, the fire wasn’t alight otherwise it could have been very nasty, but as it was, shattered ornaments lay all around, the pot was destroyed and the water it had contained was now seeping all over the carpet. Worse, all the presents that had been carefully piled up underneath ready to hand out next day, were soaked in green, scummy, pine scented water.

It was an absolute emergency. Not what you want to happen on any day, but on Christmas Eve! Thinking fast and looking at the clock, I realised that B&Q – a big hardware store only minutes away from us – would be open for another twenty minutes. I sent my husband off with orders to not come back without a new pot. Then I tried to assess the damage. First thing: rescue the presents. I quickly unwrapped the affected ones. Some packaging was soggy but otherwise the contents were okay, these I put to one side to be re-wrapped. People would simply have to understand.

But my ornaments, my beautiful, expensive, lovingly purchased over the years’ ornaments, hadn’t been so lucky. Some were amazingly still intact. Landing into the tree, they had survived the “timber” and were okay. My first golden twists were both alright, but a crystal fairy was shattered as was a star and several golden and orange twisted glass baubles. Sadly, I got a bag and picked out the broken ones.

My husband got back, and we managed to right the tree, fixing it securely into its new stout pot. The rest of Christmas Eve was spent painstakingly picking all the shards of glass out of the rug, spreading out the remaining ornaments on the tree to cover the gaps and re-wrapping the now slightly soggy presents. It made for a good story on Christmas Day, but I still remember the victims of the tree crash with a pang. One offs, I’ve never been able to replace them.

Then Miss F was born. For her first Christmas she was given a beautiful Wedgewood bell, and every year since I have bought her one lovely tree ornament of her choice. This means when she finally has a home of her own, her first tree won’t have to be decorated with ring pulls and popcorn, although if she has friends as good as mine gathered around her tree, she will be very blessed indeed.

As soon as Miss F was old enough, she began “helping” me to decorate the tree and was very proud of how beautiful our tree always was. It wasn’t until years later that I let her into a secret. After she’d gone to bed, I would take everything off the tree and start again. Because she was so little, she’d place all the ornaments at her own height in the centre of the tree, so it looked very odd. I’d make all the right noises, my OCD screaming at the sight, then thankfully rearrange everything once she was safely asleep. She never realised, and everyone was happy.

Each ornament on our tree has a story. Each has an origin tale that as we unwrap and place it on the tree we remember. Being a small family of two, these traditions help bind us together and give a sense of continuity going forward into the years. There’s the glass ballerina bought when I took Miss F to York on holiday and we saw her first ballet, Cinderella.

There are my gorgeous Venetian glass droplets, five of them of ever-increasing length, they came from the small glass making island of Murano in Venice and were so-o-o-o expensive it made my eyes water paying for them. But I love them and was so relieved they survived the great tree disaster of 2001.

I have three red glass ornaments given to me by a friend when she was learning how to make glass decorations, and as she now lives very far away, they are a lovely reminder of her. One year, Miss F had a bit of a craze for penguins – I think it was the year “Happy Feet” came out – so when she spotted a penguin tree ornament, she just had to have it. Same with the reindeer in a bell and the glass stag.

For a few years’ birds were her passion, and she collected an entire family of birds which she assembled into what she calls her “bird nativity” – I don’t ask, I just go along with it. A peacock feather bauble, golden fruit, a tiny mirror fit for a Lilliput Versaille and a grand Snow Princess were all yearly acquisitions.

A Bird Nativity apparently

There is my frog prince ornament, bought on that same trip to York from an amazing shop there called Christmas Angels that sells all things festive all year round. If ever you go to that fabulous city, be sure and pay it a visit. As soon as I saw this, I had to have it. And there is a mini disco ball, because what tree doesn’t need one of those?

Apart from the falling tree tragedy, there have been other victims over the years. A rather sweet rocking horse was knocked off the tree when a very heavy cookie dough Santa above fell onto it. Santa’s black shiny boots were knocked off and the poor horse lost his tail, but we simply turn his back to the wall, so it doesn’t notice.

And then there is the gherkin. A bone of contention between Miss F and I, in that I hate it, whilst she loves it. Every year I try to lose it amongst the other decorations, but every year she finds it and insists on displaying it in pride of place. But this has also become traditional, and maybe if it did actually get lost one year, I would miss it. Or maybe not.

Every year I end up trimming lots of branches from the “ugly” side of the tree to make it fit into the corner of our small lounge, but those branches aren’t wasted. We have original fireplaces in both our reception rooms which simply cry out to be “Christmassed” and I always go to town on them, piling on the sparkly things and the bling and ending up with something I think looks amazing and, even if I do say so myself, really quite professional.

We have an old nativity set that is decades old and is really beginning to show its age. Perhaps some would have thrown it away by now and replaced it with a shiny new one, but its flaws are what make it familiar and loved. It doesn’t matter that the stable roof has been condemned, that Mary has a chip in her cloak and the donkey has lost his tail. They’re family, and you don’t throw away family for the sake of a few imperfections.

Goodness, what a long blog this has been. Sorry about being so wordy and I hope you were interested enough to stick with me to the very end. At least there were lots of pretty pictures to keep you amused.

I am working all weekend and then I have a whole seven days off! Only getting three days off over the Christmas period, I always make sure I get in first with my holiday request and get a week off in December to not only prepare for Christmas, but also to have a rest and brace myself for the madness that working in retail brings during peak time.

Hopefully, you will join me next week and I wish you all a peaceful and happy Sunday. If you are decorating your own trees, then enjoy. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, then allow me to extend to you, warm wishes anyway, in the hope you will accept them in the spirit in which they are given.

All the best

Julia Blake