December in the Northern Hemisphere and I’ve decided to have a Christmas Tree this year. Summer in New Zealand rapidly wilts the local Pinus Radiata and anyway, I have no decorations there. In London, stored in boxes is a history of baubles, fairy lights, buntings and assorted miscellaneous decorations, bringing with them memories and musings on this most pagan of festivals.
My mother in her later years shocked me by admitting that she dreaded and hated Christmas. She detested the drunkenness and rows associated with the family business owned by my grandmother and managed by my father. Somehow Mum never let on about her Christmas misery. Dad would go out on the road side and cut down a Pinus Radiata seedling – later, we were old enough to do it. The tree was decorated then my brother and I awoke on Christmas morning to a litter of presents.
There were presents from Father Christmas addressed to us boys in Mum’s distinctive hand-writing and offered with a wry smile. We were in on the joke and I don’t think I ever believed in Santa. I’d worked out pretty early on that there was no way he was ever going to get down our chimney.
It was not comfortable to have maternal and paternal grandmothers in the same room so, like many families of the age, we compromised. Paternal Grandmother came on Christmas Eve and being Scottish, preferred Hogmanay. We went to my maternal Grandparents, to meet up with cousins, aunts and uncles, sitting on the back lawn in shorts and bare feet recovering from the heaviness of a traditional Christmas dinner. There was always roast chicken with the usual vegetables, which we were expected to eat, followed by hot steamed pudding secreted with silver threepenny and sixpenny bits. We forced down the hot desert just to get the money. Somehow it was contrived that every child got a coin.
We weren’t really a church-going family – nominally Presbyterians – I’d decided around the age of eleven, that the teachings of Jesus pretty much didn’t match up with what was happening in the world and in particular, Christianity. We went to Sunday School and Bible Class to meet up with other youngsters in the village. There were little performances in church – the Strang Brothers, Alan and Jack sang Silent Night while I, wracked with nerves and a lack of talent, accompanied them on the piano. Somehow, I got through it. Some years later I sang Mary’s Boy Child accompanied by the church organist – weird.
In London, for many years, Christmas was about choral singing. I belonged to the Actors Choir and our conductor, Anthony Bowles, would have us perform the Nine Lessons and Carols – inspired by Kings College. Anthony would reluctantly allow us to do a preview only of the carols at the Actors Centre in the week before.
‘Christmas ends in Oxford Street on the twenty-fifth. In the Anglican Church it begins after Christ’s birth.’ And so, we did a tour of churches on the four Sundays after Christmas. We always started with Once in Royal, but there were rules and if we went on too far into January, some hymns could not be sung and we had to substitute. In time, some of the lessons were replaced by readings from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. We had a high proportion of unbelievers in our choir but somehow the music and fellowship prevailed. Once at Thaxtead Parish Church (the home of Holst) it was bitterly cold. We requested permission to wear our coats. Antony promised that we would be warmed by the Holy Spirit. Sadly, the Spirit failed most of us, confirming my lack of faith. Anthony sadly died from an HIV related illness in the early nineties. He was resigned to be going to Heaven and would greatly miss most of his friends who would be going to ‘The other place.’
Phillip arrived in my life around the same time and brought with him his box of Christmas decorations. It is this treasure trove which has set me of on these musings, some of them trivial, others joyful, but in the main they have brought a certain sadness. Dressing the tree was a ritual undertaken by Phillip, in a particular way and I’ve tried to emulate that. The tattered fairy on top of the tree is in her late sixties. She was bought from Woolworths in South Yorkshire – a cardboard cut-out dressed in now-faded crepe paper. Her wand-holding hand is missing, so I’ve distracted the viewer with a blue feather. The mostly-glass baubles of varying sizes are now classics going back to the fifties and sixties; modern baubles are now made from plastic.
Phillip had a tradition of buying a new decoration every year and we continued that. By the nineties, everything was plastic and expensive so I got into the habit of taking advantage of the after-Christmas sales to buy decorations for next year. There are enough to dress a tree now and I’ve even given away surplus fairy lights.
Whatever your beliefs and customs in these extraordinary times, be kind, remember and hope.