Christmas Trees and Advent

How do you dress your Christmas tree? I am a traditionalist and enjoy decking the tree with tinsel, red, green and gold baubles and multi-coloured lights.  My oldest bauble dates back to 1981, and was sent to me by Stella, one of my school friends, when she and husband John were living in California.  They have moved back and forth across the Atlantic a couple of times since then, but they came back to the UK for good in February.  Unfortunately, Stella has had a very rough ride with her health and they have been effectively locked down in Surrey throughout the pandemic, but excitingly, they are moving to Devon very soon.  We haven’t lived in the same county since our teens!

When Stella and James were little, I embroidered two small figures from kits, an angel for Stella and a robin for James; they must always be on the tree, too.  More recently, a friend sent me a felt bone with our rescue greyhound Shadow’s name on it and last year I gave Shaun a glass ornament featuring an Exmoor stag.  Another unusual decoration is a little Russian doll that was brought back for us from family friend Lucy’s visit to Moscow in 2008 (I think that was the year!)

Some years the tree has been artificial and others it has been real. This year we enjoyed choosing a Nordic tree that has been growing in Devon soil for seven years; it was freshly cut for us.  (Regrettably, Shadow feels he has a duty to ‘christen’ the tree, and experience has taught us that a few pieces of scrunched up silver foil on the floor seem to put him off that particular notion …)

There is something comforting about decorating the Christmas tree with the familiar memory laden objects which are carefully packed away into the loft each year.  There is a sense of anticipation when the boxes come down again in December and as I lift out the ornaments from their wrappings I am invariably revisited by a welter of feelings. 

When you have a family, adorning the tree is an exciting annual event.  It is lovely when children are old enough to help, though their enthusiasm generally outweighs their artistic talent, and a certain amount of judicious relocation of this bauble and that piece of tinsel may take place after bedtime.  Some years, an event around the tree passes into family folklore, such as the year the (then) kitten pulled it over at least twice, and another occasion when the cat scratched and scrabbled at all the wrapped presents, desperate to reach his catnip toy, producing a confetti of wrapping paper for Christmas morning.

There comes a time when children lose a bit of interest in the tree, or they want a trendy, lime green set of decorations (used once and still languishing in the box) and ultimately the tree decorating has reverted to being my pleasurable task, with Shaun patiently unravelling the lights and carefully placing them under my direction. 

Naturally, I think of Stella and James when I place their ornaments onto the tree. I feel the now familiar sense of the absence of James.  He loved Christmas and I don’t think there has been a single year without a tree, apart from 2005, the year we lost him.  That year, we went away to a hotel, being entirely unable to make any attempt to ‘do’ Christmas.  But as time has passed, despite the empty chair at the table, we have been able to pick up our traditions again and balance them against the poignancy of loss.

Last Sunday, I gave a short reflection on BBC Radio Devon which focused on the comfort and joy of Advent.  Since I joined the many Christians around the world who celebrate Christmas from a faith perspective as well as a secular viewpoint, I really enjoy the anticipation of the four weeks of Advent. 

I have missed going to Church this year and witnessing the lighting of the Advent candles, although I have been able to participate through watching online services.

I find that Advent is a period of waiting, wonder and anticipation, but this year, the year that has been like no other, it is difficult for me to feel those emotions to the degree that they would usually be present. It is hard to be contemplative with the level of worry engendered by the current situation, though I keep trying! I have a sense of trepidation about further difficult times ahead; my usual anticipation is necessarily tempered by well placed anxiety, not just for myself, but for everyone confronting this new and challenging world. 

Comfort and joy may seem in short supply, but we must take heart from the shift of the earth’s axis that comes again after the winter solstice and the knowledge that we will be pointing towards the light again.  Advent begins in the dark but points towards the light; the mourning light perhaps, and for more people than ever this year.

There is comfort in the traditional carols playing on the radio, and I know that there will be joy and radiance on children’s faces when they discover that Santa has paid a visit, socially distanced though we may be.

It is the time of year when I say a big “Thank you” to everyone who continues to read my blog, approaching its seventh year.

I wish you all a peaceful festive season and above all a healthy and safe time to come.

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