THE CHRISTMAS TREES
'Oh look! Look! The chimney sweep! Oh, I used to love him!' Jennifer held up a small glass globe which tapered, at the top and bottom, into delicate glass spikes. It was a perfect, pale lavender in colour, neither too red nor too blue. The translucent glass sphere attracted light and held it, like a bubble.
Painted round it was a dark-blue silhouette of a chimney sweep carrying a long ladder on his shoulder, and another silhouette of an old-fashioned lamp-post. White blobs of snow fell around the sweep, and there was a suggestion of snow-covered ground at his feet.
'This was one of the globes I had when I was a little girl,' Jennifer said, holding the delicate bauble above the heads of her own two daughters, Anna and Catherine. Anna reached up for it.
'No, let Catherine hold it, and you can look at it. Be careful, Cath, it's very fragile. I'm amazed it's still in one piece.'
'I've always kept 'em packed up well,' Brenda said. She was Jennifer's mother. 'Here's another two, look, the Moons.'
'Oh, the Moons! Oh look, the Moons!' Now Jennifer held, one in each hand, two long crescent moons made of coloured glass. One was a dark blue, the other a dark red, and they had faces painted on them.
'I must say, your tree is very good,' Brenda said. 'I didn't ever think I'd like an artificial tree, but that's as good as a real 'un, that one. Cones and everything.'
Jennifer had packed the artificial tree in the car, along with the clothes for herself and the girls, and the presents.
'It even feels like a real tree,' Brenda said, shaking her head.
'Can I put this one on?' Catherine asked, holding up the chimney-sweep globe. 'I'll be careful.'
Her mother nodded, and they all watched as Catherine hung the first globe on the tree: the old, fragile chimney-sweep globe that Jennifer had once had hung on her own trees.
'Let me put one on!' Anna shouted.
'All right, all right.' Her mother delved into the big old cardboard box, with wine bottles printed on the side, in which her mother had kept the Christmas decorations for many years.
'Oh look! “Sputnik!”' She held up an odd, spiky silver ball, dangling from a cotton loop. It was made of plastic, so Anna couldn't break it. 'You hang that on.'
'What's a sputnik?' Anna asked.
'Oh, now you've asked me something!' Jennifer looked at her mother, who shrugged. 'I think it's something to do with space - I think it was a Russian space satellite, years ago. I don't know if that's really meant to be a sputnik - that's just what we always called it. Oh look!'
Catherine laughed. 'You keep saying that, Mom! "Oh look! Oh look!"'
'Well, I keep seeing all these old friends. Just look!' She held up a model giraffe, made of a frosted white plastic, which sparkled as it twisted from its fine cotton loop. One of its legs had been broken off.
Catherine laughed again. 'A giraffe! A three-legged giraffe! What's a giraffe got to do with Christmas?'
'Didn't one come to the manger?' Brenda asked.
'Let me put another on!' Anna demanded.
'You hang on the ones we brought with us, my love,' her mother said, handing her a plastic box. 'They're all yours. You can hang every one of those on the tree wherever you like.' To her mother, as Anna very solemnly set about her task of choosing exactly where each of her ornaments should hang, Jennifer said quietly, 'Ours are all plastic. She can't break any of them.'
Anna took gold and silver filigree spheres of plastic from her box, while Catherine found, among the tissue paper and tinsel in her grandmother's box a candle of coloured glass: a glistening, frail red stem of hollow glass, topped with a glass flame of yellow, with a little grey metal grip at the bottom to fasten it to the tree.
Anna was lifted on to a chair by her grandmother, to place silver and gold plastic pears and apples in the higher branches. Catherine, with breathless care, took a silvery-blue glass bird, with a long shimmering tail of white glass-fibre from a nest of rustling tinsel. She wagged it in front of her little sister's face, to make it shine, and stroked her cheek with the soft tail. Anna tried to snatch it, but Catherine kept it out of her reach. 'You tell me where to put it: you choose where it goes.'
Dipping again into the big cardboard box, Catherine lifted out a blackened string, hardly thicker than a cotton thread. Clinging to it here and there were little worms of spongy white stuff. 'What's this?' she asked in distaste.
'Oh that!' Her grandmother took it from her. 'Now that is old-fashioned tinsel - '
'Tinsel?' Catherine said. The nasty looking stuff didn't shine at all.
'Oh, it was quite pretty when it was new,' Brenda said. 'I bought this - oh, dear-oh, it was some years ago now. Before your Mom was born - '
'What, in medieval times?' Catherine said.
Her mother gave her a mock-threatening look as she helped Anna fix a tricky globe to the tree.
Brenda pulled a strand of Catherine's hair. 'What does that make me - prehistoric? I bought that tinsel when your Uncle Andy was born, I think. It tarnished after a few years, went all black like this. These modern materials am marvellous.' She picked up a long, thick trail of deep crimson tinsel, which waved and shimmered along its length. 'We had nothing like this back then. None of these colours - and this keeps for years and years, good as new. I do like to see it all hanging in the stores.'
'Do you remember "Angel Hair"?' Jennifer asked.
'Oh I do!' her mother said, and they both laughed. Seeing Catherine looking puzzled, her grandmother said, 'It was this white stuff I bought one year. It was like all soft - white - like fine - '
'It was glass fibre,' Jennifer said.
'It was glass fibre, spun very fine,' Jennifer explained to her daughters. 'And you spread it out and spread it out over the tree until it was like cobwebs, and the lights shone through it and went all rainbow-coloured. Oh, I loved that stuff.'
'Is this it?' Catherine had dived back into the big cardboard box and had come up with a tuft of something like very flimsy white hair. Her mother took it from her and rubbed it between her fingers.
'That must be a bit of it, yes.'
'Do you think - ' Catherine was elbow deep in the box again. 'Do you think we could find enough of it, in bits, in here, and put it all together and - ' She broke off. 'This box smells like Christmas.'
Her mother came, leaned over the box and sniffed. 'It does!' It was a smell of pine, and of something harder to name - of cold, from the cold back room where the box was stored and, somehow, of old glass and old sweets, and winter. But though there were shreds and wisps of Angel Hair everywhere in the box, clinging to old globes, there wasn't enough to drape over even a couple of branches.
'Oh look!' Jennifer cried, pouncing. From a tangle of tinsel she lifted out an old grey egg-box. She lifted the lid to show what it was filled with - 'They're real, painted egg-shells, so you must be very careful - careful, Anna! They'll break ever so easily.' She lifted one out of the box by its loop of embroidery silk. It was painted with red toy soldiers and teddy bears. A long tassel of embroidery silk hung down from its bottom. 'They're real, blown egg-shells.'
'I remember you making 'em,' Brenda said.
Anna, who had hung all her ornaments on the tree, came pushing up. 'Who made them?'
'We did,' Jennifer said. 'Me, and your Uncle Andy, and your Auntie Ceel - because so many of our old globes had been broken and we hadn't got much money to buy any more, so we made some of our own. Your Uncle Andy painted this one; he was really good even then.'
Catherine lifted another of the globes. It was painted a dark, metallic bronze, and covered with a design of silver tendrils, vine leaves and grapes, and hung on a loop of gold embroidery silk, with a gold tassel hanging below.
'Your Aunt Ceel did that one - and that one, the one with the silver cockerel - '
Anna made a grab for the egg-box, and Catherine snatched them out of her way, just in time. Anna gave a squeal of rage.
'Would you like a mince-pie?' Brenda asked, bending down to her. 'You come on with Granny and we'll see if we can find some mince-pies. Would you like a glass of something?' she asked Jennifer.
'I would, I'd love it - it's about time I got pie-eyed, I think. I painted that one with the cockerel,' she said, as her mother and youngest daughter left the room hand in hand.
Catherine lifted the painted egg. It was black, with a crimson loop and tassel. The cockerel was painted in silver, while on the other side of the egg were some words about the bird of dawning singing all night long. 'It's lovely,' Catherine said.
'It's not bad,' her mother said. .But your Auntie and Uncle were always better than me. Still, there's some painted by all of us. I'd hate 'em to get broken.'
'They ought to be kept - for ever,' Catherine said. 'Handed down. They're beautiful.'
'I don't think they'll last for ever. They're only egg-shells.'
'They've lasted this long.' Catherine hung the silver cockerel on the tree, choosing a place where it could easily be seen. 'If we look after them, they'll last.' She moved one of Anna's plastic pears in order to hang the egg painted with vines in its place. 'They're only out of shops,' she said. 'These eggs should be in the best places.' She got on the chair and moved another of the plastic globes to the back of the tree, where it wouldn't be seen. 'Pass me up the one with the teddy-bears on it.'
Brenda came back in, carrying a tray with a plate of home-made mince-pies and cakes, two glasses of wine, and two glasses of orange juice. Anna followed, eating a chocolate-chip cake.
She began fumbling about in the big cardboard box, hardly able to reach to the bottom of it. Since all the most fragile ornaments had been taken out, and there were only plastic ones and tinsel left, no one stopped her. Standing on tip-toe to reach to the bottom of the box as it stood on a low coffee-table, she lifted something high into the air, sending strands of tinsel flying, and demanded, 'What's this?' It was a bundle of wires, a sort of broom-head of bare, spiky wires.
'Ooh, mind! You'll have your eye out!' Brenda cried, trying to find somewhere to set the tray down quickly.
Jennifer took the wires from Anna.
'Well, I never,' Brenda said. 'It's mother's old tree.'
'What - Gran's?' Jennifer asked.
'Yes, your gran's.' Having wedged the tray on the edge of the table, she took the bundle of wires from Jennifer and opened them out until they took on the shape of a small, crude Christmas tree - an ugly, bare little Christmas tree with a trunk of thick wires twisted together, and branches made of long spikes of thinner wire. 'This belonged to my mother,' she explained to her granddaughters. 'To your mother's grandmother.'
Catherine, still standing on the chair, with a long strand of golden tinsel in her hands - shining, modern tinsel - pulled a face and said, 'It's not much of a tree.'
'Oh, it didn't look like this when it was new.' Still holding the little wire tree, Brenda sat down in an armchair. 'All this wire was covered in silver tinsel when I bought it for her. It was one of the very first artificial trees, when they never tried to make 'em look like real trees. I suppose they couldn't.'
Anna sat down on the floor and took another cake.
Catherine climbed down from the chair and chose a mince-pie. Jennifer picked up her glass of wine.
'Me mother - her'd be your great-grandmother - her lived to be a very old lady. Oh, her did love Christmas. Her always wanted a tree. But it was too much for her when her was old and living on her own - too much money, too much trouble with the pine needles and all that. So I bought her this little tree one year. I used to visit her every day, to see her was getting on all right, and every year on the first of December, her'd get it out and set it up on her sideboard.'
'Here's its stand,' Catherine said. From the bottom of the box she took out a stand of red plastic and fitted it together. She took the tree of bare wires from her grandmother and fitted it into the stand, and stood the tree on the coffee table.
'Her didn't mind it not looking like a real tree,' Brenda said. 'Her loved anything shiny, me mother, and it was all silver tinsel when it was new. I bought her a set of tiny little globes, all different colours - they'm still about somewhere - and her loved to put 'em on it. And when her got really frail, and couldn't do much for herself, her'd be on at me, as soon as it was November, "It'll soon be time to put me tree up." And her'd keep on, more and more - by the end of November her'd be on at me all the time. "Get me tree out the cupboard and put it up." Her couldn't bear to wait longer than the first of December. It had got to be put up. And there it'd stand on the sideboard until Twelfth Night, and her'd sit and look at it. We used to put her presents round its stand. Her really loved that little tree.'
Catherine began to sift through the tinsel still left in the big cardboard box. While her mother and grandmother sat back in their armchairs and sipped their wine, and while her sister steadily ate her way through the pies and cakes, Catherine sat on the rug and patiently wound gold and silver tinsel around the bare wires of the little tree. The two women were too busy talking, and Anna too busy eating as much as she could while no one was watching her, to take any notice of what Catherine was doing, until she stood the little tree upright on the table and said, 'There!'
'Oh Cathy!' her grandmother said.
The little tree looked better than it ever had, decked out in brighter and more luxuriant tinsel than it had ever sprouted before, shining and shimmering, now gold, now silver.
'Twelve Princesses!' Anna shouted.
The two women looked puzzled. 'What's her say?' Brenda asked.
Catherine was used to interpreting for Anna. 'There are trees with branches of gold and silver in the "Twelve Princesses". You know - the fairy story.'
'It looks better than new,' Jennifer said, admiring the glittering little tree. She sounded surprised, as if she hadn't thought her daughter capable of having the skill or patience to do such a thing.
'Where are the little globes for it?' Catherine asked. 'You said you still had them.'
'Now wait a minute,' Brenda began to get up. 'I think I know exactly where to look for 'em.'
Catherine, kneeling by the table, lifted her mother's glass and looked at her mother, who nodded. So Catherine sipped at the wine, liking its warmth and trying not to shudder at the bite of the alcohol and the bitterness under the sweetness.
Anna came begging for some, and Jennifer said she might have a sip too. 'Just a little sip - now, that's enough now, that's enough for a little girl.'
Brenda came back into the room, carrying an old chocolate box and a little framed photograph. 'That's my mother, look, That's your great-grandmother.'
Catherine took the photo, which was black and white. It showed a tall, thin woman with a big smile, wearing a flowery frock and leaning against a wall.
'That was taken in Blackpool,' Brenda said. 'Her used to love Blackpool as well. Went every year, to see the illuminations. Her loved bright colours and anything shiny.'
Catherine was looking from the photograph to her grandmother and her mother. 'She doesn't look like you - either of you.'
'No, I didn't take after her,' Brenda said. 'I wish I had. Her never had an ounce of fat on her, my mother, and look at me!' Brenda was short and plump.
Catherine put the photograph down on the table and opened the old chocolate box. Inside, tumbled together, were tiny glass spheres, about the size of Maltesers. They were bright, shiny, and intensely coloured: red, green, blue, silver, gold, purple.
'Oooh!' Anna cried, and made a dive for them.
'Careful, careful!' Catherine said. She caught hold of Anna's hand and put into it one of the bright little green baubles. 'Put it on the tree then. Don't be rough. Put it here.'
The little globes had lost the fastenings for fixing them to the tree, but they all had a hole where they had been. Guided by Catherine, Anna fixed the globe to the little tree by pushing this hole on to the end of one of its tinsel-covered wire branches. Green glass against gold tinsel, it shone.
'My turn.' Catherine took one of the purple globes and poked it on to the end of a silver branch.
'My turn!' Anna shouted, and was about to snatch when Catherine said, 'Ah-ah!' So then Anna slowed down, chose a bright, cherry red globe and pushed it on to the end of a gold branch.
'Oh, it's so pretty,' Brenda said. 'Mother would have loved it.'
Turn and turn about, the sisters went on adorning the little tree. A bright blue globe on a silver branch; a silver globe on a gold branch, red on silver, blue on gold. The little tree seemed to grow bigger, to spread its tinselly branches, to glow and sparkle in the light.
'So pretty,' Brenda said, shaking her head, her voice choking in her throat. 'Oh, listen to me. I must have had more to drink than I thought.'
Also in the chocolate box were some tiny crackers, made of shiny paper. Between them, Catherine and Anna lodged the crackers in the forks of the little tree's branches. Then they all gazed at the tree in silence, Catherine sitting back on her heels on the rug, Anna standing beside the table, Jennifer leaning forward from her armchair and Brenda sitting back in hers.
Catherine turned to her mother and said, 'Haven't we got a string of fairy lights?'
'I don't think we brought them with us,' Jennifer said.
'We did. They were in the box when you put it in the car. I saw them.' Catherine went out of the room and down the hall, to where many of the boxes they'd brought with them were still standing. She came back with a string of small, flower-shaped lights hanging between her hands, on green cable. She draped the lights over the gold and silver branches of the little tree, winding them round and round. They were a little too long, but not by much. The lights had lain unused for years in their box of decorations, always too short for their big tree.
Brenda bounced upright in her chair and said excitedly,'There's a spare plug down behind the television.'
The lights had to be unwound from the little tree again, and then Catherine lay down on her belly to plug them in.
They at once began to shine: red and green and blue. Jennifer brought the little tree and they stood it beside the television, on the cabinet. Catherine knelt up and draped the lights around the tree again, then jumped to her feet and darted across the room to switch off the light.
The little tree was the only patch of light in the darkness. Each of its small lights cast a mist of colour around it. The blue lights shone on the silver tinsel: the red lights shone on the gold. Bright points of light and a gleam of colour touched each little glass bauble. The light reached out and glinted on the globes hanging on the larger tree, which was all but hidden in the darkness.
'Ooooh!' Anna said approvingly.
'Oh, that's so pretty,' Brenda said again. 'You are clever, Catherine. Mother would have loved that. Your great-gran would have loved it.'
'Let's leave it up as long as ours,' Catherine said. 'Let's leave it up for Great-Gran.'
'Well, we ain't going to take it down now,' Jennifer said. 'Another drink, Mom?'
Brenda said yes, and Jennifer went into the kitchen and made hot chocolate for the children, and brought the bottle of wine back in with her. Brenda had turned on a small lamp, so that they could have enough light, and yet still enough darkness to appreciate the prettiness of the little tree.
As they drank their chocolate, Brenda told them about Christmas when she was a little girl. 'We had a real stocking - I mean, we used one of our socks, not these big sacks you get now. We hadn't got much money. Our dad had died, see, so our mother - that's your great-gran - '
'The one who owned the little tree,' Anna said.
'That's right. Your great-gran had to go out to work, and her did work! But her always made sure we had an orange each in the toes of our socks, and some nuts and an apple - they was real treats when I was little, real treats - and a sugar mouse. We always had a sugar mouse for Christmas. The boys got white ones, and the girls had pink ones. And I had five brothers and sisters, remember, so it wasn't easy for your great-gran to find the money to buy all them apples and oranges and sugar mice. Have you got your stockings ready?'
'Great big sacks,' Jennifer said. 'They'm down the hall, waiting.'
Brenda leaned forward and tapped Anna on the nose. 'Ashes in your stocking if you ain't been good!'
'I've been good,' Anna said.
'I'll bet you haven't.'
'Father Christmas will bring me my presents anyway, won't he?' Anna said, and Jennifer told her, 'Of course he will, 'course he will.'
'You'd better leave a mince-pie and a glass of wine out for him, then,' Brenda said, and then Anna wanted to do that at once.
So they cleared away the old boxes that the Christmas decorations were kept in, and dusted the table clean of bits of old tinsel, and set out a little plate with a couple of mince-pies on it, and a glass of wine standing beside it. Catherine put some more pies on another plate, and poured another glass of wine and set them beside the little tree.
'Who's that for?' her grandmother asked. 'The reindeer?' Catherine smiled, but didn't answer.
Soon after, she and Anna were sent off to bed. Their gran insisted on making them up hot-water bottles, even though the house was centrally heated and they didn't need them.
Both women came upstairs to see the stockings - or sacks - hung on the doorknob of the bedroom Anna and Catherine were to share. It was all for Anna, really, who still believed in Father Christmas, but Catherine enjoyed going through the ritual for Anna's sake. Their gran kissed them both, and then the women went back downstairs. Anna vowed that she was going to stay awake until Father Christmas came. She wanted to see him, but most of all she wanted to see the reindeer. She had an idea that they came into the house with him. Not down the chimney, of course, that would be silly. Through the door. But Anna was asleep within fifteen minutes.
Downstairs Brenda and Jennifer drank wine, and talked, pottered around getting small things ready, and put the turkey into the oven to cook overnight. Jennifer worked out how long it would take to cook and set the oven-timer.
'I hope I've got enough in,' Brenda said. Her son and other daughter were coming the next day.
'Together with what I've brought, we've enough to feed the army, and put on a high-tea for the navy. Shall we go and be Father Christmas now?' Giggling, the two women crept up the stairs. Catherine came quietly out of the bedroom to join them. Presents were fetched from the top of the wardrobe in Brenda's room, where they'd been stowed on arrival, while Brenda ferreted hers out of the various cupboards and drawers where she'd been hiding them for months. Every crackle and rustle of cellophane seemed likely to wake the neighbours, let alone Anna. When both Christmas sacks were bulky and bulging, they were returned to the landing outside the bedroom door, and Catherine went back to bed.
'I'm ready for my bed now,' Brenda said.
'Well, you go on and go to bed then, Mom. I can lock up.'
So Brenda went into the bathroom, while Jennifer went back downstairs. She collected cups and glasses from the living room and carried them out to the kitchen, where she checked again that she'd set the timer correctly. When the cups and glasses were washed up and put away, she made sure that the back door was locked, and went down the hall to lock the front door. She was about to go upstairs when she remembered the fairy lights on the little tree. Better turn them off. It wasn't likely that they'd cause a fire, but better safe than sorry.
As she pushed open the door of the living room she could see the faint glow of the coloured lights on the wall. The door swung further open, and Jennifer gave a wild start, backing into the hall, her hand rising to her throat. A figure, a stranger, sat in the armchair.
But not a stranger. Jennifer's hands dropped from her face as she recognised the head bent forward on the neck, the chin pulled up towards the nose, the stooped shoulders, the thin arms and hands folded in the lap.
The old woman sat in the armchair, staring towards the shimmering and sparkling, the coloured lights and shining baubles, of the little gold and silver tree.
The living room door swung back, until it almost closed, hiding the old woman from sight. Through the crack of the door left ajar came the faint glow of red, blue and green light.
Jennifer stood in the hallway. Slowly her hand rose, to reach out and push the door open again, but she withdrew it before it touched the painted wood.
She stood there some further minutes, and then went down the hall and turned off the light at the bottom of the stairs. The light on the landing was already off. She climbed the stairs by the dim grey light of a street-lamp shining through the glass panel in the front door.
Half way up, she stopped. Around the living room door shone the faintest haze of coloured light. The little Christmas tree was still shining. Perhaps it was still being admired.
I was prompted to write this by my mother talking about her childhood Christmases, and her mother’s little artificial tree.
All the Christmas ornaments described – including ‘sputnik’, the three-legged giraffe, and the painted eggs, belonged to my family, and were hung on our trees. Unfortunately, few have survived to be photographed (and the three-legged giraffe now has only two legs.)
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