I would have settled for a five foot Christmas tree this year. Yes, dear readers, one as modest as that. And I choose the word settled purposefully. Eight or nine feet of Scandinavian pine has been the norm for the past 10 years; bursting forth from some corner of our front room, every wilting branch poking us in the ribs to remind us that this season is short and the years are even shorter.
But when I suggested the five foot option, it was met with a choir of boos and hisses from my children, just as if the pantomime villain had strolled onto the stage. “But we always have a big tree.” The voices wail, “It is tradition.” Hence the Ghost of Christmas present passes through our front room on the shrill wave of derision.
Charles Dickens is turning 200 years old. The television is constantly reminding us of the fact and England is re-discovering one of its greatest writers as a result. The great characters of Pip, Miss Havisham, Mr Bumble, Uriah Heep, Jacob Marley are being re-constituted for a new generation. For me it has been an opportunity to consider the one innocuous and somewhat banal line from Dickens that has stuck in my mind for decades. It is from the very end of A Christmas Carol; Scrooge has been redeemed and already he has thrown the crown coin from the window for a child to collect a prize Christmas turkey. It is nearly the last line of the stave: “He knew how to keep Christmas well,”
1968: It is the tree; the tree that sticks in my mind. Tall and thin and plastic: it smells of the heat of the attic. The ornaments box is too big for the job of delicately protecting the glass baubles. Therefore the bottom is lined with slivers of sparkling glass and fish hooks to hang the trinkets from the individually assembled artificial branches. The glitter sticks to our fingers. It creates cuts unseen to the eye but felt in the tiniest of nerve-endings.
Wrapped in tissue are the most precious decorations: not monetarily precious but my mother’s most beloved. Three glass birds with plastic plumage: each a different primary colour with contrasting glitter down the side. They were a gift from my father’s father.
There is a wind up concoction. It has the appearance of a tangle of feathers on a small drum. The base twists and sets the mechanism into action. On top some different bird pecks in quick-fire, metallic spasms to a 4/4 beat. A chime plays out a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
My father hands down the nativity scene from the attic. The figures are too big for a crèche, too small for real life. Instead they give the circus-like feeling of a freak show. Mary is leaning forward with her hands on her heart. I cannot tell Joseph from the shepherds. The sandy bags inside the sheep will stop it from blowing over on the front lawn.
I push my ear into the green carpet at the base of the tree. Andy Williams is playing from the heavy maple-wood hi-fi. His voice sounds underwater as I press one ear hard into the carpet. Silver Bells, Silver Bells, it’s Christmas time in the city…”
Unintentionally camouflaged, the green plastic soldiers I hold are pushed along the carpet. They are defending the white dome. It is the cool white-metal dome that holds the main moulded trunk of the synthetic tree. It is also the soldiers’ fort. One infantryman hold a bazooka, perched on the thumbprint-shaped switch that turns the dome into a music box, slowing spinning the tree to the metallic chime of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
We want it to be colder. We want it to snow for Christmas like it does on the television. The sweaters and flannel shirts are too hot for this weather.
Andy Williams wants to Let it Snow. But the weather outside is unseasonably warm, not frightful. The soldiers are aligned on the white dome as it rotates; disappearing and appearing again.
Keeping Christmas well.
2011: Older and hopefully wiser, Christmas is about stability and constants. It is about undertaking the same and the familiar. There is comfort in that. Without ever verbalising the notion I have passed it to my own children; hence their abhorrence that the tree could anything other than the 9 foot Northern Fir. Surly and imposing; a tree elbowing its way out of a corner adorned in flashing lights and tinsel, demanding we deck the halls. Demanding.
I drive home on the greasy-wet and glare-drench streets of East London. On the fly-over where the A13 enters the Limehouse Tunnel, I glance south across the Thames. The Millennium Dome, now re-named and reconstituted sits on the southern foreshore. It is white and cold. It is the dome that held the Christmas tree of my childhood, plastic and smelling of the attic’s heat. I imagine my green and plastic soldiers perched on its lip, bazooka’s primed and ready; defending Christmas Past.
I do not fear that Scrooge’s dream-like revelation will be my own. There will be no ghosts to visit me and demonstrate the dangers that lie rooted in my desire for money over love. That was Ebenezer’s lesson to learn, not mine. Mine, dear readers, is that we are defined by our ritual, our traditions. And those traditions are our comfort, not our foe.
Tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.
Keeping Christmas well.
Keep the Faith,