image of a christmas tree decoration in the form of a star


12th Dec 2014

A lit Christmas tree in a darkened window is a sight that sets the mice of memory scurrying along complex pathways. There are other stirrings, too, deep in the psyche, for those of us raised on the rituals of Christmas and its ancient magic. Each year as December approaches I resolve to be more casual, even to break with tradition. But as soon as I bring in the tree and unpack the decorations I find myself caught, as always, in a reprise of past seasons.

The boxes I unpack brim with treasured pieces - a silver star with blobs of glitter, made in kindergarten by our daughter; the tiny cross-stitch embroideries in frames that I worked in coloured thread on fine linen, back when I had perfect eyesight. Pride of place at the top of the tree goes to an angel I bought almost thirty years ago. An impulse-purchase, with gaudy golden wings and a dress made of tinsel wrapped around a cone of cardboard - when I carried her home I had no idea that she and I would be getting together once a year for the rest of our lives.

I have become the guardian of the Christmas fairy that belonged to my mother-in-law, a small silver-winged doll that was purchased with a coupon in post-war Britain and kept throughout a long marriage. My mother's angel, too, sometimes visits, for after eighty-nine Christmases my mother sometimes rebels, and does not put up a tree. The angels spend the off-season snuggled together in tissue paper, three compass points whose tips tremblingly point towards December, and to so many other utterly inexplicable places.

The box of ornaments is a seasonal lucky dip. I unwrap the embroidered elephants I bought for our grandson's first Christmas, the jolly dog juggling bones, the white doves and snowflakes that were sent years ago from America. Even the ropes of tinsel are now decades old. Moved by their accumulated history, I fall to wondering what happens to all the Christmas decorations of the world - at this time of year the shops are piled high with bright new baubles, but I never see old ones for sale in second-hand or charity shops. Are these objects, treasured within families, sometimes for many decades, simply trashed? Where do all the fairies and angels from the tops of Christmas trees end up? I think I do not care to know the answer.

Time unwinds as I stand before the open boxes, with past Christmases flashing by like stations seen through the rainy window of a speeding train: here come the My Little Pony years, swiftly followed by the Barbie Dolls and Bunty's Christmas Annual; further along are the little wooden trains with happy faces - Thomas, Annie, and Clarabel - and then the nerf guns, and the footballs.

Photograph of Chrsitmas decorations

This annual decorating of a tree has its difficulties. Much can change in a year, and some years take more than they give. Unlike other, more private anniversaries, the communal nature of Christmas brings an added pressure to absence and loss.

With my hands full of tinsel, I remember how hard I always find it to pack away this stuff on Twelfth Night, the dismantling of the Christmas tree being a more sobering ritual than this anticipatory putting-up. Back into the boxes go the elephants, the juggling dog, the doves, the snowflakes, and the angels, and I know at some point I will find myself thinking that the whole business of bringing them out each year and attaching them to an indoor tree is really rather strange.

The noted 20th century child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, wrote a great deal about the strangeness and magic of Christmas, and how important it is for children to be allowed to believe in imaginary figures, like the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and, of course, Santa. These beings, especially Santa, give to children simply because they are children, and the small recipients are not required to write notes of gratitude to Santa, as they often are to adults.

The few years in which children believe in the jolly gent who comes down the chimney with a sack of presents is the only period of true magic most of us will experience in the whole of our lives. According to Bettelheim, this belief is linked to our sense of self-worth, and the skill with which we process abstract ideas in adult life.

I have acted as Santa for more years than I care to count, stumbling into darkened bedrooms with a sack of presents before returning to the kitchen to stuff and baste a turkey, or to put together my favourite vegetarian main course - a pretty chestnut and cranberry wreath. I have been the beneficiary of ancient magic, and I have helped to perpetuate it; I can do no more with, or for, Christmas, except, perhaps, to perpetuate the making of this truly lovely chestnut and cranberry wreath. Click here if you would like the recipe.

Photograph of a vegetarian baked chestnut and cranberry wreath