Whether the Christmas period begins with Coke commercials or opening your advent calendar one thing cements it: decorations. Once they’re hefted down from the loft where they were packed in old hi-fi boxes a year previously, they aren’t going back. It’s too much hassle–and you know how your dad’s back is, especially when it’s parky.
Next to the tree–which seems almost pornographic in its state of undress–the decorations are so much lingerie, so many sparkling bustiers and garter belts with which you’ll tart up the entire house. From tip to toe, every window will glow, every banister will shine, draped with tinsel, baubles, fairy lights and more in every colour of the festive season.
Some decorators take a more refined, restrained approach. The Boston townhouses we recently left behind were Christmassy only in the wreathes fixed to each door. Holly green and tied with ribbons these wreathes are sold at every supermarket, laying in piles beside the sliding doors where shoppers can pick and choose as homeless veterans beg for quarters.
Wreathes are hugely popular emblems of the season over here, appearing not just on doors but on lamp posts, too, marking nice neighbourhoods where hoodlums won’t steal them down and break them into pieces. Hee in our current neck of the woods each lamp has a wreath or red ribbon tied about it, and the gazebo in the town square–what I in my imperial ways still think of as a band stand–is barbed with lights, and has a full-sized Santa figurine stood in the entrance waving to those driving past.
In the few years I’ve visited New Jersey at Christmas these decorations have become as recognisable as those in my hometown–perhaps even more. I haven’t spent a Christmas in the UK since 2007 and even then I was reluctant to brave the city centre Christmas shopping to see the lights. The ones I remember are–of course–those of my childhood: Christmas crackers slung between buildings, festive flurries of sleigh and snowflakes on the walls of the larger department stores, Royal Parade lit from end to end, every tree along it garlanded in tiny white lights. The last time I saw Plymouth in December, the lights were set up pretty much the same as they always had been. There were a few nods to technological advances since the eighties–the nets of lights sparkled like camera flashes at the Olympics–but most of the displays I remembered remained intact. Those skeletal tees, winter-robbed of their leaves, stark silhouettes lit from within lining the road from Drake’s Circus past church and guild hall will stay with me forever as reminder of how Christmas once was.
And the shops, each lit with its own fairy light display, were baubles in a gargantuan urban Christmas tree. If anything the smaller shops that closed after dark had more impressive displays than those that remained open. With their windows still lit after the assitants had travelled home, the shop floors were dark and mysterious behind a veneer of tinsel. They looked like our Christmas tree in the final moments of each December day, when my parents had turned off the TV and the room’s only illumination came from fairy lights and a thousand tinsel-frond reflections
I remember Christmas displays being more animated when I was young. It’s probably nostalgia bringing static memories to life, but I recall moving figurines, puppets, toy train sets–memories likely spun from decades of idealised Hollywood Christmases. A few of the biggest shops in town had their own Santa’s grottoes; now none of them do. They were a focal point not just for the department stores but for all of the city centre, funnelling children between them like a festive Scylla and Charybdis.
And the air smelt of frost and roasting chestnuts, rang with Slade, Wizard and Mike Oldfield, blaring so loud the speakers distorted the songs into crackling melodic noise. One of the many sounds of Christmas for me is In Dulci Jubilo, snapping and popping through a blown-out sound system.
This is Christmas, woven in dreams, frozen in the past, and every year we’d do it all again, pulling the decorations down to pour through them, discarding those glass baubles that hadn’t survived the year in storage. Like wires left to tangle together there’d always be a few smashed to reveal the wire holders within, just as the long coils of fairy lights would inevitably not work until two or more bulbs were replaced.
But they were always replaced. For years our Christmas decorations were always the same, with only one or two additions made every year. We had threadbare tinsel garlands that shedded as the season wore on, and banners my mum had inked herself and threaded on string, that she fixed on the walls with Blu-tack. There were empty boxes that had once contained chocolates, that my dad would fill with Quality Street for when my sister inevitably took one off the tree to shake. There were prismatic icicles and red foil cages that sprung open to reveal cardboard bells ringing inside. There were glittery Father Christmas figurines in every pose and hue, cotton wool snowmen, felt stockings left from long ago advent calendars, and fun-sized Smartie boxes wrapped in paper, tiny gifts that would never be open.
Bordering the ceiling were strings of Christmas cards my mum and sister accrued in great number, some home made, some lavish, but most bought fifty for two pound and handed out willy-nilly.
At the centre of it all were two very special decorations. The fairy–always the fairy, never the angel–at the top of the Christmas Tree and the clay nativity I’d sculpted myself.
I’ve mentioned the nativity before. It’s the kind of silly children’s project that manages to be endearing despite its ugliness. The kings and shepherds were all malformed, as were the holy family looking dimly happy beneath the sagging stable roof. Carefully wrapped at the start of each year, then carefully unwrapped when December arrived, it was and still is the fulcrum of my family’s decorations about which all else turns.
While some of the other families in our neighbourhood had stars on the tops of their trees–and what a concept that was to the very young Campfire Burning, who’d grown up with the same fairy retrieved from the loft year-in, year-out–we had the fairy: a faceless green and silver foil decoration that stayed with us for many years until finally supplanted by another fairy, this one looking very much more cherubic. Green was the predominant colour in those eighties Christmases, a hangover from my parents’ Christmases through the seventies, when they’d hung gold and green foil pineapples over their house, which they continued to do until the last one of them fell to bits.
Slowly, our decorations changed. Emphasis was put on lights, not baubles. Our tinsel became too thin to bother hanging, our card chains dwindled, our baubles broke, our family fractured. This year the cracks have widened even further. This Christmas the only people celebrating in Plymouth will be my parents and my gran, in a quiet and empty house hardly worth decorating.
We’ll have our own Christmas one day, I suppose. Lindsay’s aunt, matriarch of merry-making, decorates her mansion just so, with careful lines of Christmas cottages lining the mantel and a dresser filled with angels and nutcrackers. It’s beautiful, picture perfect, a Christmas card interpretation of Christmas as it should be, yet it seems so wrong to me. I remember what Yuletide used to be like, and this isn’t it at all.
They have their own traditions and thus their own decorations: hidden pickles that grant the finder an extra gift, presidential hangings from the White House, pipe cleaner decorations woven by this or that cousin a long time ago. Hand-knitted stockings hang from the fireplace in which burns a lively living fire.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s nice. But ‘nice’ is all it is to me. ‘Nice’ is all it means.
Our own home’s Christmases are still ahead of us. We sometimes plan on buying a small tree but our plans are always abandoned or fall through; anyway, there’s no space for it. Maybe next year, we tell each other. Maybe next Christmas will be different.
When we start collecting decorations we’ll collect them in earnest. We both have a vision of how Christmas should look, and though our ideas are different we can meld them together into something twice as warming. The lights, the baubles, the joy of the season: we’ll do it all and we’ll do it together.
A riddle, then: what grows grander the more it’s trimmed?
You bet we’ll decorate. And damn it, Christmas will be merry once more.