I don’t know about your own, ancestral heritage, when it comes to Christmas. Mine was coloured by candles and green rituals. German rituals mostly. And there was always the music, and my father’s singing. And the Adventkrantz with the one additional candle we lit each Sunday prior to Christmas. And then, there was the setting up of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree was always huge. We lived in the country and my father helped many farmers who gifted him with a great tree each year – until he started buying land and growing his own. And the best, was always, always, when we lit the candles on the tree. Yeah, you read it right. Real, lovely, small and white candles that would be artistically positioned on the tree branches and lit frequently throughout the Christmas period.
Lighting the Christmas tree wasn’t about the story of the switch of a button. It was difficult – the tree was tall – and dangerous – the candles needed to sit straight and not to threaten any branches above. So, as children, we were always called down to sit around the tree and would marvel at my father going round the tree with a live flame and quickly sitting down with us, in awe at the picture of the tree all lit up for us, for Christmas.
People often ask me why I never, ever have electric, flashing lights in my Christmas tree. That’s the main reason why.
And setting up the tree for Christmas became a ritual that became more and more important with the years going by. I made – sew and embroidered – Christmas decorations when I didn’t have any, when living abroad. Then started buying one or two everywhere my travels took me. And as my old friend told me recently: it’s the handling of that bauble that has such a story in your mind and heart, the memories attached to the way you acquired it and the joy it has brought you every single time you have sought a place for it on that new tree.
My best Christmas tree was the one I had in Michigan, each year, for a few years, some time ago now. It was magnificent. I could even imagine real, live candles burning on it. And we collected it in the woods in the most traditional fashion. I remember my son’s jaw dropping several times over his lifetime with me so far, and this was one of them: when we went to pick and choose our tree on a horse-drawn carriage in the depth of the snowy Michigan woods. With the traces of jet lag still hovering around our minds, it felt like a dream or being in one of those old, American films.
My Christmas decorations continued to live in Michigan for a few years, even though I was no longer there. So, during that time, we did “pretend” Christmas trees here, back home, or we didn’t have one. I also went “sustainable” and bought a synthetic tree which sat in the attic for the rest of the time it wasn’t Christmas. And then, the decorations were all returned this year. And many got damaged or broken on their return to me. And I realised that it didn’t really matter, as long as we had had the beautiful experiences and we still had the magical memories.
And now that my son is at a stage in his life where “Christmas tree” simply echoes with a lot of noisy “to and fro” on the attic ladder, there is always the question whether we should set the tree up… The answer from him is always “no”, of course. And I always end up thinking that there are rituals one should not stop when they are linked to so many loved people, so many enchanting places and so many ancestral memories.
And I swear, my hand on my heart, that this year’s tree is turning out to be the best I ever had. Synthetic. With no lights. And with all the surviving decorations of a very rich and changing life.
What’s your Christmas tree like this year?