Friday, 20 December 2013

O' Christmas Tree, O' Christmas Tree

A friend and I were comparing notes yesterday about our Christmas trees.  Hers is silver, lilac and crystal, mine is gold, bronze and amber.  While our styles are different we do have something in common.

We are both completely and utterly overly protective of our trees.  She has two in her house - one for the kids to put up and one for her that she can spend hours on, working out the exact best location for each gorgeous bauble and turn the tree into a miniature work of art.  I'm similar.  I will spend weeks rearranging baubles that I am not happy with, right down to the day before it comes down.  
Putting up the Christmas tree is such an annual ritual for me.  Some of my earliest memories involve my mum putting up the Christmas tree at home, ironing the red bows and stringing all the lights and golden chains.  She too was incredibly protective of the tree and all the fixed decorations had to be attached by her before my sister and I were allowed to attack it with the wooden decorations anointed with tiny red bows and baby sprigs of holly, fighting over who got to attach the sparkling white stars, breaking our favourite decorations in a tug of war and, in her mind anyway, probably ruining the entire aesthetic.  If she had thought about it, 2 trees would probably have been the ideal solution.
As we decorated the tree my dad would bring us toasted ham sandwiches half way through and I would also be allowed my one glass of alcohol a year, a really small glass of sweet sherry that I would make last about 3 hours, just sipping at it.  It tasted like sweet sugar syrup and to this day I cannot drink sherry without being transported back to being about 8 and decorating the Christmas tree with my parents and sister.

The whole house would smell of orange, cinnamon and spices and there would be real holly and ivy dripping off the mantlepieces that mum retrieved from the garden with a pair of secateurs, held together with fat church candles and oranges studded with cloves.  Fires would be lit and the only light would be from the fireplace, the tree lights and the dimmed lamps throughout the living room.
These days I have my own house and my own tree and my own way of decorating it but some things that my mother taught me have lingered.
Steve and I used to have a real tree every year (which are significantly easier to decorate than the fake ones) but fake trees have come a long way since the one-colour-one-length-stubby-looking-branches you used to get and a couple of years ago we invested in a fake one.  I'm pleased that ours still looks fairly realistic!
I love a traditional tree with Dickensian feel, full of bronze and gold and shimmering lights.  I go out every year to buy one new decoration and every time I do I consider completely changing up the colour scheme but I still always come back to the traditional tree.

Lights go on first.   Single string, no flicker, white bulbs only please.  This is Steve's job as I just get into a tangled mess with the lights and it gives me time to sort out the decorations and check for any breakages.
Once the light are up I get to work with the items that need draping around the tree.   My mother never once had tinsel on her trees and to this day I cannot abide it.  I hate the smell of it and the feel of it makes my skin crawl.  Instead I decorate the tree with thick wired ribbon and strings of shimmering glass beads that catch the lights and reflect them back around the room.
Next go the items that attach to the branches - real bundles of cinnamon wrapped in parchment paper, gold painted bundles of grapes, poinsettia flowers and pine cones.  If I have time I also slice oranges thinly, bake them in the oven for about 2 hours on a really low heat to dry them out and then string and hang them as well.  I believe that the more senses you trigger with a tree the better it is and these all help the tree to smell fantastic.
At this stage the tree is suddenly looking significantly more Christmassy!
Then it is time for the baubles.  If I had a real tree I would first of all use 'filler baubles', basic round globes placed far back along branches towards the centre of the tree (some branches would have two or even three baubles on them) to add depth and interest.  My fake tree is too dense in the centre for this though.  My sister and I used to love lying under the tree at my parents house after we had finished it as this technique ensured interest all the way through and up, and lying on the floor, gazing up through the branches meant watching a light show of Christmas sparkle.
I also cheat outrageously when decorating the tree.  I never bother with the back - there is absolutely no point in our house as it is against a wall and it is just a waste of decoration as far as I am concerned!

Understated and elegant sparkle on a tree is so important to me.  I start with amber droplets, placed to allow the lights on the tree to make them glow from within.
Then the large items that require space - homemade clusters of baubles (made from kits of small baubles that had no real other function so Steve got creative with them and some wrapping ribbon),  draped tiered baubles and swinging angels.  Basically the items that take up more room than anything else so you are limited with where to put them!
I then always place my really heavy items, the ones that drag the branches down and end up putting the decoration into a random space.  This involved rearranging each one two or three times as the branch droops too far and the decoration looks in danger of smashing on the floor!
Then the final fillers, the bronzes and the golds which all add more sparkle.  One of the rules I try and abide by is no more than 5 of the same decoration on the tree.
Angels of all shapes and sizes are scattered throughout, all various degrees of realisticness (I like this word).  Well, as realistic as an angel can be.
And of course, it wouldn't be one of my trees without some bird decorations on there somewhere!
And finally.  The angel.  Our little, fluffy, ridiculously small angel.  There is a story here.  I first bought all my Christmas decorations in the January sales years ago after Christmas was over ready for the next year.  Steve and I were broke and I knew that there was no way on earth I could afford to buy decorations in the run up to Christmas.  Over the years we have gradually replaced some of those original early decorations but the angel has stayed.  She isn't even supposed to be stuck on the top of the tree, she originally had a hanging bit out of the top of her head and was obviously supposed to be a hanging decoration.  However when I first got her she was all I could afford.  I think she was about £5 (in the sale), compared to the £30 angels designed for the top of the tree.
Steve and I discuss replacing her every single year with something a little less ridiculous in terms of size but we always agree that she reminds us of where we have come from, of how life used to be when we were first starting out and we had to scrimp and save for every little thing.  It reminds us that Christmas isn't about the money or even the food or the gifts.  It's about spending time with your loved ones.
This little, unassuming angel at the top of our tree year on year is symbolic of everything that Christmas is for us.

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