A Tale of Two Christmas Trees

Christmas – depending on your point of view, it’s either a celebration of the human spirit or a disaster of Hindenburg proportions that tests the limits of human endurance.  I like to think it’s the former and do all that I can to prevent it from turning into the latter.  There have been some might close calls over the years.  Let’s face it, for a single day it demands nothing less than a marathon effort.  Christmas may come but once a year but, according to my local supermarket at any rate, it starts in mid-August and ends abruptly on 26 December when the hot cross buns come out.  But for all the drama and the race against time, these days I like Christmas. 

When I was growing up, we alternated between real and plastic trees.  The real ones weren’t purchased so much as they were purloined, usually in the dead of night by my father.  One evening in mid-December, he’d disappear with nothing but a shovel, bucket and a torch.  And, possibly, his wits, although the end result suggests he may have left those at home.

He’d return home, hours later, with a branch that he’d optimistically refer to as a ‘tree’ and a series of possum scratches on his face.  The tinsel didn’t so much as decorate it as it did mask its hideousness.  Inevitably, this diseased, mangy piece of foliage would be home to a small number of pine needles and a very large number of insects which, once inside, would flee the ‘tree’ and take up residence in the house.  It was a surprise to no-one when we made the switch to plastic.

Plastic trees go either one of two ways – either they pretend to be real or they embrace their fakeness.  Ours landed somewhere in between; in that it thought it was real but looked hopelessly fake.  It was reminiscent of a talent show contestant who honestly believes they are a gifted and beautiful singer when, in reality, they couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  Ironically, it looked real only to the extent it resembled the real one my father used to pluck from some unsuspecting neighbour’s front garden, riddled with pests and diseases too numerous to mention.  Over time, the tree became threadbare as artificial needles fell to the carpet to, eventually, be sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.  Eventually, it looked a collection of coat hangers. 

At a certain point, you grow up and find that you’re responsible for your own tree.  I had no idea where to start.  I didn’t even own a bucket or a shovel, much less a torch.  I had to buy one.  I settled on a tree that was fake but believed it was real.  That is, a fake tree with pretensions.  To obtain this super tree, I had to travel to three different ‘Myers’.  Finding it was hard.  Assembling it was no easier. 

Rather than just take the tree out of the box and stand it up in the nearest corner, there were very specific instructions about how to massage the artificial pine needles into life to give the thing a more realistic appearance.  It was as though you had to be careful not to hurt its feelings.  After several hours of coaxing, teasing and massaging the foliage, I began to harbour dark thoughts about getting a bucket and shovel.

As high maintenance as it was, it was quite a tree.  It wasn’t to last.  Some things you keep, others you lose along the way.  At some point along the journey, I lost that tree and went totally tree-less for a few years.  There’s nothing more dispiriting that a pile of tinsel in the corner with a few flashing lights.  It looked as though a disco ball had crash landed.  But things have changed and I can, once more, hang my tinsel with pride.  In fact, I have found myself (almost) right back where I started.

My partner, Katrina, would not stand for a fake tree.  She insists on the real deal.  For her, it’s a family tradition, one that her late father carried out with great pride.  What makes family her tradition so different to mine, is that they purchase their real Christmas tree from a reputable vendor, in lieu of snatching it off the street in the dead of night.  And it’s enormous.  The thing reaches out for the ceiling and takes at least two people to manage.  Getting it into position is not so much a chore as it is a quest.

Katrina’s tree is, without fail, the largest tree I’ve ever seen that wasn’t still attached to a forest.  With its arms stretched out wide, it wraps itself around the living room in some kind of pine-scented festive embrace.  Rather than a bucket of sand, this thing is so huge that it has its own special stand, complete with anchor bolts and a watering moat.  As for the decorations, I can only describe them as ‘next level’.

I’ve never known anyone who considers nine complete sets of lights to be a ‘good start’.  There aren’t many Christmas trees that can be seen from space, but I suspect this may well be one of them.  If you go to your window at night, chances are you can see it glow in the distance.  Katrina’s Christmas tree is nothing short (and ‘short’ is a term that would never be used to describe it) of a monument to Christmas itself.  Christmases past and present are wrapped up in its ornaments and the lights emit a soft nostalgic glow.  It is magical.

My father still has the same fake tree.  To be honest, it now looks more like an aerial than it does a tree.  The family these days is so large that the tree is entirely overwhelmed by the gifts.  In a way, that little tree – denuded of needles and in danger of imminent collapse, is a reminder of what was.  And the tree in the corner of Katrina’s living room, full and bursting with life, is a symbol of what can be.  I’ll be sure to enjoy them both.  Happy Christmas to you all.

What the Dickens – From Listless Christmas Past to Glorious Present

Charles Dickens is a bona fide nitwit.  In his book, ‘A Christmas Carol’, not only did he forget to include a character named ‘Carol’, he victimized a man of advanced years just because he was thrifty.  Granted, ‘A Christmas Scrooge’ sounds somewhat unsavoury, but in less judgmental times Ebenezer Scrooge would have been lauded as a fiscally conservative hero.  Worse still, Dickens needlessly uses ghosts to transport our misunderstood protagonist to the past, present and future.  It’s totally pointless – Christmas has always been about time travel. 

There’s no other day of the year that can move you so effortlessly from one point in your life to another.  No matter what age you are, you can feel like a child again, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment.  Charles Dickens knew that.  But I don’t need a ghost to help me see Christmases past, present and future.  For me, seeing the past, present and future is what the day is all about.  Christmas is a signpost, a crossroad and gigantic roundabout with a tramline running through it (possibly) all at once.  It’s a day that tells you where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going.  It’s glorious.

The sense of nostalgia is especially potent at my father’s house.  That’s partly because he still uses the same artificial tree and decorations he did when we were kids.  I realize that the very notion of an artificial tree can be controversial to some, but their allure lies in the promise that you’ll never have to buy another Christmas tree again.  My father has taken that promise to heart.  In the four decades since he purchased his artificial tree, the plastic needles have fallen away, leaving what’s left totally denuded and looking like a demented TV antennae.  That it he sets it up whenever he wants to watch something on SBS only entrenches this impression further.

 It’s not just the tree.  As kids, we were required to remove the wrapping paper with the utmost care, ensuring no rips or tears.  It was a task we approached with all the caution of a member of the bomb squad.  He even gave us each a scalpel.  This has enabled my father to reuse the same paper numerous times over the subsequent decades.  There’s an upside.  These days it can be difficult to secure a supply of ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ wrapping paper, but each year I can rely on my gifts being swaddled in cartoon images of Steve Austin.  It’s comforting.

Other things change quickly.  Two years ago, I headed down to family Christmas on my own.  It was a difficult day but, luckily, I had Steve Austin wrapping paper to look forward to.  A year later, I was arriving in a small minivan full of people.  It was to be an entirely different experience.  A better one.  Twelve months earlier, I’d driven down with just my thoughts for company.  It was a lousy experience.  In contrast, the following year was full of colour, movement and chaos. 

Arriving with such a large entourage was new for me.  I’ll admit there were moments that caught me off guard.  Especially when the eight year old loudly declared that his seventeen-year-old sibling had an image on his cap that, for reasons associated with good taste, I’ll simply describe as a ‘Dickens’.  The picture had been drawn on with black texta and, hopefully, was not to scale.  It was a moment of great excitement that resulted in some rather heated discussion. 

As to why the image of a male appendage had been drawn on the hat or why this hat had been selected for Christmas lunch was never explained, as the seventeen year old kept his thoughts to himself.  In a moment of panic, his sister snatched the cap and used a marker to turn the offending image into holly.  By the time she was done, it looked quite festive.  With the stroke of a pen, the Dickens had become decorative.  A Christmas miracle!

Truth be told, I’ve always loved Christmas.   But there were times when my family was no good at it.  For a little while, after we all left home, we struggled to come together on Christmas Day.  Looking back, I’ve no idea why that was.  What I know, however, is that it all changed when the first nephew arrived; Christmas was instantly reinvigorated with purpose and meaning.  It’s been that way ever since.  Christmas is a malleable thing.  It changes as we do.

I’m looking forward to all of it.  The threadbare tree skeleton that haunts the living room as presents spill out across the carpet.  The sound of children and (possibly) adults screaming with delight as they shred wrapping paper with merciless vigour (my father is more relaxed when it comes to wrapping paper these days), the decorations and the festive jumpers and t-shirts.  Crackers and tinsel, baubles and pudding, and even hats that have a giant Dickens drawn on them.  I can’t wait.  And, when it’s done, I’ll find a moment to sit down with one of my all-time favourite books – ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens and marvel at the transformative nature of good will and generosity of spirit.  Then before I go to bed, I’ll likely read the last line of that great book aloud – God bless us.  Every one!