For me, as a child, Christmas always began as soon as the Christmas tree and the decorations went up. Every year we wanted them to go up earlier and earlier, but my mother always resisted, insisting that we wait. There were four children in my family, and patience (especially when it came to Christmas) was not a virtue that any of us had been granted. So, every year as soon as we got into December we would hatch a cunning plan to gather together on an evening when my mother had to go out and get the house decorated for the festive season.
The Christmas decorations were stored in the attic of our little terraced house and I (being the youngest, smallest, and, by virtue of being a member of an athletics club, the most nimble) was hoisted into the dark, cramped space of the loft. This rarely visited space was a place of mystery and magic to me. The smell of old suitcases, books, perambulators and discarded tricycles was an Aladdin’s cave filled with undiscovered treasure. That said, the dark corners mixed with the eerie echo of water dripping into the cold water tank always added a frisson of dread and fear.
The Christmas tree, with its green tinsel-covered bendy wire branches, wrapped in its newspapers from the year before and the heavy gauge cardboard drum – that was once used to store industrial amounts of nutmeg and was now the home of our precious baubles and Christmas lights – were the prize for conquering my fears of being up in the attic alone. From below, on the landing, I would hear my brothers and sister calling to me “come on, what’s keeping you?”, stirring me from my wonder as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Thus, the relay of handing down the tree and the decorations began. Staring down through the hatch in the dark attic into the bright light of the stairs and landing all I could see were eager faces and grasping hands.
Once everything was handed down, the procession down the stairs into the living room began. I could never decide what I wanted to look at first. That old nutmeg drum that housed the decorations for the tree and the ceiling as well as all the lights and Christmas cards from so many Christmases past always drew me to it. I always wanted to be the first to remove the lid and inhale the heady bouquet of tinsel, glitter, cotton wool (used for snow around the foot of the tree), old card, and, of course, nutmeg. It was an intoxicating mixture and it is, for me, the smell of Christmas. Sometimes, as an adult, I think I smell a hint of it in the air when I visit someone’s home or when I go into the Christmas department in a shop, but it is never quite there. It tantalises me, I almost smell it, I think it is about to reveal itself to me, almost like a memory or a word one can’t quite recall and you feel like you almost have it but ultimately it eludes you. Thrilling yet exasperating in equal measures.
The Christmas tree though was always the first thing to receive our attention; all of the tree’s branches had to be unfolded and straightened as best we could. We had the same tree every year. I believe it was the only tree we ever had when I grew up. It was never upgraded or refreshed, it just got more threadbare and bent out of shape with each passing year but we loved it and thought it was the most beautiful Christmas tree there ever was. Once the branches were all in place the most magical part of the decorating process began – hanging the lights on the tree. This was always the first step in the decorating process.
Christmas lights remind me so much of cosy winter evenings curled up on the sofa, early Christmas mornings excitedly descending the stairs to see what Santa had brought, dark evenings when the room closed in around you and the only light was from the flames of the open fire as they danced a shadow ballet on the walls lit only by the twinkling of the fairy lights from the tree. I feel so nostalgic thinking back. Christmas lights make me yearn for times long gone, for days of innocence and fun, times of good wishes and cheer, of family games and gifts. I would sit for hours just staring at the lights on the tree, squinting my eyes and pulling those lights in and out of focus creating little halos around each light and dreaming endlessly of what Santa may or may not bring, what sweets I might get in my stocking, and whether or not we would get fizzy drinks and sugary breakfast cereals (treats only permitted once a year at the Christmas grocery shopping outing)!
Once all of the decorations were finally up we would all sit back and marvel at the glory of our work and wait in anticipation of our mother’s return, wondering whether she would be angry that we had decorated without her or relieved that it was one less thing she had to do!
When I was growing up we had so many traditions in my family at Christmas that I wasn’t aware at the time that they were traditions. Everyone got new shoes and clothes (same at Easter) to wear to mass on the big day. We all had to go on the Christmas grocery shopping trip and we all got to choose the ‘Christmas cereals’ (usually very sugary and unhealthy!) as well as the fizzy drinks. We all hung a sock (note: not a Christmas stocking but just one of our regular socks) from the hearth into which would be placed a satsuma, some toffees and some colouring pencils. We all visited my father’s grave and wished him a Happy Christmas. We always strung the lights on the Christmas tree before anything else. There were many others I’m sure but I have probably forgotten.
To this day I still get excited about decorating the house for Christmas; it fills me with nothing short of glee. Almost all of those traditions are gone for me now. I have tried to hold on to some, like putting the lights on the tree before any other decorating happens. For me the most important element in decorating for Christmas is the lighting. I still feel an excited fluttering in my stomach when I think about getting home at the end of the day, when it’s dark and cold outside, and I can settle into my cosy chair with all the comforting glow of my Christmas lighting around me (especially since I haven’t lived anywhere as an adult that has had an open fire).
This will be my first Christmas in my very first home I have ever owned, so more than any other year in my life so far I want this year to be full of happy memories, new traditions and the twinkle of Christmas lights that allow me to drift off thinking about what Santa might bring. So when I was asked if I would like to write a blog about my plans for my first Christmas, and whether or not I would mind decorating my home early and taking some pics, I couldn’t have been happier. Any excuse to get my fairy lights twinkling!
So here I am in mid-November decorating my Bethlehem Lights tree, draping my Bethlehem Lights Garlands and swaddling my trees by my front door in Bethlehem Lights indoor/outdoor Light Strands and I am loving every minute of it. The new neighbours may think I am a bit nuts but that doesn’t bother me one jot! Perhaps putting my Christmas decorations and lights up before any of my neighbours could be one of my new traditions!
Happy festive decorating everyone. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I do.