Lots of people have had their Christmas tree up for weeks. And why not? If it brought a smile to your face during glum late November days then more power to you.
After all, we are doomed to spend most of our time indoors this year and there’s little doubt that staring in wonder at a glittering spruce in one corner of the room is a whole lot nicer than staring in dismay at the TV news in the other.
When I was a child, our Christmas tree went up in the dining room, a scarcely-used and seldom-heated room with a fireplace where the fire was never lit – nice and safe for Santa. Mum’s annual campaign to get the fairy lights to work was always tense; we’d watch fretfully as she scraped tiny windows in the coloured paint with the wee kitchen knife to see if the filaments had blown or not. Spares were hard to come by and if one bulb blew then the whole string wouldn’t work. Oh, the joy when they finally sparked (probably literally) into life!
The baubles on our tree were weightless painted glass, the tinsel scrunched into sponge-like ropes from years of being worn as scarves or headbands and the fairy on the top so dishevelled, she looked like she’d slept in a skip after blacking out at the Fairyland Christmas party.
I loved our tree so very, very much that I would ration my visits, peeping round the door at night, when only the tree lights were lit, as if spending too long there might shatter my heart from a sheer overdose of awe. It’s no surprise then that when my own children were small, I would expend a huge amount of time and effort trying to create the ‘perfect’ Christmas. If just one thing, one marvellous decoration, one spot-on gift, one magical festive tea, could capture even a fraction of how I felt gazing into that chilly room at nightfall, I’d be overjoyed.
But as L.P. Hartley said, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. I grew up and so did my children and Christmas evolved with us along the way. I tried to shoehorn in a smattering of whimsy every year, with variable degrees of success. Board games became out of the question as attempts at cosy evenings bent over the Monopoly board revealed sides to our characters that should never have seen the light of day, least of all in the season of goodwill.
Instead, we had the annual Christmas Jigsaw, bracing walks to the Watchnight Service and mandatory cracker hats at the dinner table. We hung up saggy knitted stockings and I always tried to source early Cadbury’s Creme Eggs to stuff into the toes, keeping me amused if no-one else.
Then, in case it has slipped anyone’s mind, 2020 arrived, bringing coronavirus and a whole new way of life. Surely this year, we think, for those of us who celebrate Christmas, this one glorious day must be our reward for our adversities, where everything will be perfect just like in years gone by? Well, we can try. But our plans, once set in stone, come freighted with ‘wait-and sees’ as Christmas approaches on a tightrope hung with contradictions.
For example, we must of course reach out to our friends and neighbours, yet stay indoors. We should open our hearts, but not our hearths. We should smile and celebrate but still allow ourselves to be sad if people we love won’t be with us. Cheer the vaccines but still dread the virus. We’ll hang onto as many traditions as possible but let others fall away, maybe even acknowledging that some weren’t worth clinging on to anyway.
After all, what really matters? Health, love and kindness, that’s what. And what doesn’t? Everything else. Maybe 2020 is the season to admit that lavish gifts are pointless, mulled wine is horrible, sparkly jumpers don’t work on anyone over the age of nine and plastic packaging is killing the oceans. Bah, humbug, etc.
That said, I hope this Christmas is every bit as magical for the children as it was when I was wee. I am looking forward to spending Christmas Day in front of a roaring fire, watching movies, eating cheese, Zoom-calling far-flung family and torching the Monopoly set; paper banknote by paper banknote. And when we wish each other well, that little word, ‘well’, will mean so much more this year.
Erica Munro is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter and freelance editor