Eventually the morning of the twenty-fourth would dawn, and we were off to buy the presents for Christmas, it was the same every year, no present was bought before the last shopping day before the great event. Excitement was the order of the morning, tears the order of the afternoon. Nonetheless we always left in very high spirits. Father would be in his most expansive moods and we would rush off to one of the biggest wholesalers, I forget the name. The reason that we went to this particular wholesaler, was because father used them for business purposes, and I must admit they carried almost everything. Not for us the high prices demanded by the Christmas bedecked shops, but the cavernous inside of a cold warehouse.
In his defence there were fewer crowds and I suppose why waste money. The only problem was that the choice was so vast that us children, selfish to our own needs, were given choices that we were not able to contend with, leading naturally to tears and tantrums when we were not allowed to have what we wanted. Then it was off to buy “THE TREE”. As can be appreciated by anyone who has ever bought a Xmas tree, buying a Christmas tree on the day before Christmas is always going to be a trial in and by itself. All the best are long gone, even in a country where the majority of households have artificial trees.
Off we would travel to the Round Table or Rotary Club’s tree sales that were held every year at Zoo Lake, to buy THE perfect tree. Some years the tree was not bad, others, it was a rather poor excuse for a tree. With tree attached to the roof of the car it was back home to wrap the presents and decorate the tree. Mother in charge of wrapping; father the decoration of the tree, both artists in their chosen chore.
Our Christmas tree was like no other that I have ever seen, all our friends had artificial trees decorated with all the colours of the rainbow with electric flashing lights, ours was dressed in stark silver with illumination supplied by candles.
First tinsel was wrapped in a spiral from the top of the tree around and around creating a spiral washing line on which to drape lematta, which is thin strips of aluminium foil that are very difficult to separate. Each strand was hand placed over the tinsel so that each piece hung free; it takes hundreds of pieces to create the effect of a silver inverted cone. Then silver balls are placed on the branches so that they will act as mirrors for the candles, the idea being that only a limited number of candles can possibly be placed on the tree, and the silver balls will multiply that number to give the illusion of far more.
Once the tree was finished, my mother would bring the presents through and father would write his cryptic little notes on the small tags attached. The tree took hours to prepare, and dinner was prepared while this ritual took place. Our involvement in the dressing of the tree was separating the lematta and draping the single strands over the lounge furniture. Then it was off to bath and to dress in our best for Christmas dinner. At seven we all sat down for a feast, Harry Potter would have been impressed.
Mother always went out of her way to create a Christmas dinner that had at least three roasts, roast potatoes innumerable veggies, puddings and ended the meal with cheeses and a bottle of wine. We children were each given a glass egg-cup of wine to toast in Christmas.
Christmas dinner was the longest meal of the year to us children, as no presents could be opened until dinner finished. Also the variety of food was wasted on us as we were all over excited and it is amazing how appetites that are normally ravenous disappear when the prospect of presents is in the making. At around nine dinner was usually finished, and then the candles of the tree were lit.
Neither words, nor photographs can ever give justice to how magical the Christmas tree appeared. With the lights turned off it seemed to float and shimmer in the corner of the lounge, hovering over the presents placed almost like sacrificial offerings at its foot. We children would sit at the foot of the tree for some unknown reason arranged in age order and the youngest would retrieve a present from the foot of the tree and carry it to father. He would then read out his cryptic message and the present was given to the relevant person.
The reason that the youngest member of the family was given that responsibly was that the youngest could not read and therefore a fairer distribution of presents was achieved. Presents were always opened and the relevant giver thanked appropriately before the next present was retrieved and given. As long as the two hours for dinner was drawn out so the approximately two hours that it took to distribute the presents flew past. When all was over, all presents were piled in little heaps, wrapping paper collected together and it was off to bed, tired but always filled with love and I presume the spirit of Christmas. Not because of the presents, but somehow that tree filled the house with an enormous feeling of Never Land and the joy of giving and receiving. It is the only tradition that I have carried forward into the lives of my children, the tree and the way the presents are distributed. I hope that they in turn will pass it down to their children.
It’s funny, in a way, I am not a religious person, but Christmas has a magic that defies a secular religion. For one night in three hundred and sixty five, all problems, hostilities, disappointments, ambitions and petty squabbles seem to recede into the background. Where the true spirit of family is allowed free reign and where the true importance of family comes to the fore. One thing that I have noticed over the years is that other families invite friends and family to share in the day, extending the celebration wider than their immediate household, we never did and I cannot remember there ever being a fight or argument on that wonderful night. I have heard of families having major fall outs on Christmas day where they had all been brought together to celebrate Christmas, the normal cause being someone or other of the family bringing up some perceived hurt or slight that would have been better forgotten.
At the same time I reflect on the many millions of people that spend Christmas alone or who are starving during that period of joy and wonder, what can be done to make a difference to their perceptions of Christmas. Not much is the conclusion that I invariably reach, as it is left to the individual to make their way in this cruel but wonderful world that we live in today. The concept of responsibility of and for our fellow man was always a dream, an illusion preached by respective religions over epochs, seeds cast on fallow ground as humanity has always had one basic unspoken rule, “My family and I first”, as a rule of survival in a hostile world, maybe that is not such bad rule. Selfish yes, but then again understandable.
Lots of Hugs and more,