Friday 30 December 2016

Cabinet of Curiosities – Christmas Family Trees

As most people know, Christmas trees were first introduced into the UK in the nineteenth century, influenced by the habits of the royal family, although using greenery to decorate our houses at winter festivals has been a tradition for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But, fascinating though a general history of Christmas traditions would be, that’s not why I’ve chosen my Christmas tree as my first entry into the History Girls’ bulging Cabinet of Curiosities. No, I’ve chosen it because, visiting friends and family, seeing all of their trees and putting up my own has reminded me that every home and every family has its own history – and these can often be traced through the branches of its Christmas tree.

So I thought I’d take you on a quick journey around my own family tree, sparkly nuts and all.

Christmas in my parents’ home has always been about our family and our traditions, built up over the years – and still is. That’s why my mum still hangs out the sequin-encrusted stockings that were first my dad and uncle’s, 60 years ago, and were then mine and my brother’s a mere 30 years’ back.

The tree at my mum and dad’s also always has certain things on it, no matter what. This year, my mum’s tree was decorated entirely in red: except, that is, my Yellow Glitter Bell (created age 7ish, maybe?) and My Brother’s Sparkly Nuts (made when he was about 2). I never did understand why the adults sniggered when we cried ‘its Matthew’s nuts!’ as they came out of the box each year...

As an adult, my own tree can’t compete with such precious and time-honoured relics, but I have developed some traditions of my own. There are the baubles two of my closest friends gave as wedding favours from their December marriage, having brought back 160 of them from China; the 7 or 8 freebie ‘fat Robins’ that my local independent garden centre gives away each year when you buy your tree from them rather than the big chain store just down the road; or the cheapo Woollies angel who is a remnant from my first student house.

There are other memories on my Christmas tree, too, of places I have been, with people I love: the wooden reindeer from an amazing holiday in the Arctic Circle; a tiny nativity scene inside a bell, brought back from the moving pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago, or the bauble painted with scenes from the Tuscan countryside, reminding me of wine-tasting and walking with my mum this summer, fulfilling one of her ‘bucket list’ dreams.

To me, that’s what a Christmas tree should be about: not just a sparkly, oversized ornament which drops bits of itself all over your carpet, but a series of reminders of the people, places and things you love, evolving year by year, each new decoration a precious memory as well as a thing of beauty in its own right. 

I hope you all had a very merry Christmas and have a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. But do me a favour: when it comes to take the decorations down, be sure to pack them away carefully. They aren’t just baubles, but celebrations.


Mary Hoffman said...

That's a little bit of history most of us have in our attic. I'd love to hear other people's stories of their family's Christmas tree ornaments.

Anonymous said...

I agree so completely with the assertion that the ornaments are celebrations, Charlotte - I would say that they are also memoirs, repositories of both joy and sadness as they remind us of especially happy times but also recall those who are no longer with us.
Like you, my tree is adorned with the infant creations of both my sons, particularly the 'loo roll Santa' (T, aged three) and 'the yoghurt pot bell' (H, aged five). Oldest son was also a cross stitch enthusiast, so there are several creations of his also on the tree.
Then there are the two glam, silk and tasseled baubles bought with a dear American friend when he visited the UK and we toured the Versace exhibition together at the V&A... the miniature Venetian mask and glass 'Pinocchio', reminder of my most beloved of cities and my forays there, the tiny blue foil swan given to H by my husband's Danish godmother for his first Christmas, and the filigree white metal Noah's Ark - more modern, laser cut but oh, so beautiful.
I have been buying one or two 'special' ornaments each year since my oldest son was born (32 years) and do indeed pack them all away very, very carefully each year. I love to do this, but also reckon that it is about time a new generation started their own collection/ tradition <cough cough - anybody listening??!!)
Thank you for a wonderful stimulus to recall many happy memories, Charlotte - and a very Happy New Year to all the wonderful History Girls here!! xxx

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Love this!

I don't put up a tree, and any ornaments I have are fairly new, but I still lament the loss of our family's old baubles. My mother gave them to my sister when she first set up home, and my sister -- well, she lost them. Including the little white lamb who began his life strung across my father's pram in the 1940s, and, by the 1970s, had become the tree ornament my sister and I fought to be allowed to hang up on the tree. A strict system of turns was put in place. My mother's tree these days is tasteful and pretty, but I can't quite forgive the dumping of the lamb. As for the little Santa whose beard had yellowed with age -- I have to be feeling quite emotionally resilient to think of him.

Charlotte Wightwick said...

Thank you Sheena and Roz - I'm so glad you liked the article and were happy to share your own traditions and memories (I'm so sorry about the lamb...)

Have a great New Year!