Monday, December 11, 2017

Christmas tree sentences

Frenchay Forestry, Bristol

[Image source:]

Every establishment has to have its Christmas tree. The most impressive one I saw this past week-end was outside the Milk Churn, a newly built Hall & Woodhouse chain pub on the expanding Hampton Park trading estate in Melksham.

At IKEA, in the understore carpark, there were queues of people threading sociably into a gridded square stacked with sleeved trees. The trees (fresh Norway Spruces, smelling of rain and resin) were £25 each but the irresistible point was, they also gave you a £20 IKEA voucher to use in the shop.

Laura doesn't like them using real trees. She's planning to get a £4 artificial tree from Homebase. She wants to decorate it on Wednesday, while she's looking after Shelden for the afternoon.

Nordmann Fir, the non-drop Christmas tree -- they call them "Nordmanns" in the trade.

Not liking to buy a real fir tree may seem a bit illogical when we'll happily buy wooden shelving, or give bunches of cut flowers, or consume cabbages, etc.  And since young trees lock up more carbon than older ones, the regular consumption of Christmas trees ought to be a good thing from the climate change perspective. A lot better than throwaway Christmas jumpers, anyhow.

Our sensitivity perhaps has something to do with the tree being a whole organism (at any rate, the whole organism above ground). We are reacting, I suppose, like those many meat-eaters who like the look of burgers or steaks but would not much relish looking at a whole dead cow. There's something, too, about the use to which our fir tree will be put to. It's going to be a centrepiece of celebration and piety, and that feels a bit too close to an old-school sacrificial rite. And finally, as if in mockery of the victim, its intended role is as a simulacrum of a living tree, displaying for us its fresh juicy leaves and resinous wood, even though its own death is certain, even though the fatal dissevering has already been performed. (And conifers, being a primitive sort of plant life, cannot re-grow from that. )

How can we not respond to the pathos of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Fir-Tree" , from 1844?  

.....the Tree was pulled out and thrown—rather hard, it is true—down on the floor, but a man drew him toward the stairs, where the daylight shone.
"Now a merry life will begin again," thought the Tree. He felt the fresh air, the first sunbeam—and now he was out in the courtyard. All passed so quickly, there was so much going on around him, that the Tree quite forgot to look to himself. The court adjoined a garden, and all was in flower; the roses hung so fresh and odorous over the balustrade, the lindens were in blossom, the Swallows flew by, and said, "Quirre-vit! my husband is come!" but it was not the Fir-tree that they meant.
"Now, then, I shall really enjoy life," said he, exultingly, and spread out his branches; but, alas! they were all withered and yellow. It was in a corner that he lay, among weeds and nettles. The golden star of tinsel was still on the top of the Tree, and glittered in the sunshine.
In the courtyard some of the merry children were playing who had danced at Christmas round the Fir-tree, and were so glad at the sight of him. One of the youngest ran and tore off the golden star.
"Only look what is still on the ugly old Christmas tree!" said he, trampling on the branches, so that they all cracked beneath his feet.   ....

(In the 2011 Danish TV film, they softened Andersen's story by introducing a note of hope at the end. The tree still died, but one of its cones fell to the ground and seeded. But perhaps the makers thought a big turd-shaped spruce-cone would seem unfamiliar or unattractive, so in the film they used a pine-cone instead. Anyway, spruce trees don't produce viable seed until they are at least twenty years old and quite tall, so the cones are in full light. It's such fun being pedantic!)

The Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is a magnificent big tree of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. It only really looks at its best in its native woods. Its timber doesn't last well out of doors, but has many uses inside. For example, it is the standard "tonewood" of violins, cellos, etc; it is what Stradivarius violins are made of.

Six years after Hans Andersen's story, in 1850, Dickens wrote "A Christmas Tree", one of his most wonderful short pieces. I can't resist giving its opening lines:

I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and there were real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs; there were French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks, and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping; there were jolly, broad-faced little men, much more agreeable in appearance than many real men--and no wonder, for their heads took off, and showed them to be full of sugar-plums; there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes, and all kinds of boxes; there were trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child, before me, delightedly whispered to another pretty child, her bosom friend, "There was everything, and more." This motley collection of odd objects, clustering on the tree like magic fruit, and flashing back the bright looks directed towards it from every side--some of the diamond-eyes admiring it were hardly on a level with the table, and a few were languishing in timid wonder on the bosoms of pretty mothers, aunts, and nurses--made a lively realisation of the fancies of childhood; and set me thinking how all the trees that grow and all the things that come into existence on the earth, have their wild adornments at that well-remembered time. (from "A Christmas Tree")

[Teetotum: A spinning-top with four or six numbered or lettered faces, that can be used to play games in a similar way to dice.]

Something magic about a small child gazing up at the sparkling tree with all its decorations. The heart of the home. Household deity, worship of capital, a residual longing for the temples of the woods, from which our houses seal us, in all other respects so conveniently? Aspiration of the parents, seeing their trouble rewarded by such guileless absorption of the values of the family?

Or does the festooned tree lead the small eyes up, like Plato's ladder of love in the Symposium, from the material of hanging chocolate to an angel, scarcely visible in the mundane world, but seeing and supervising all, and pointing with its china hand to still more dizzying ascents of the spirit into the zenith?

When I was a child, we'd get the Christmas box down from the loft (it was an old suitcase). There were various decorations inside, such as goats and stars made from straw and red wool; very fiddly to disentangle from each other,  also quite fiddly to loop round the thin pricking needles of the spruce. There were other painted figures made from pine: gingerbread men, and an orange fox (rumoured to be a spring decoration, but always brought out at Christmas because it wasn't worth going to the trouble of getting the suitcase down from the loft in March just for the sake of a couple of spring decorations. Less appealing to my parents, but more so to myself, were the sumptuous glittering glass baubles. We only had about four of them. I insisted on hanging them up myself. On a couple of them the fittings were a bit broken, exposing a throat of jagged glass on which you could cut yourself if you weren't very careful.

Epiphany at Frome Recycling Centre 

In the UK it's considered a social duty to throw away or hide all your Christmas decorations on (or preferably before) "the twelfth day of Christmas". The 6th January is therefore a day of utilitarian gloom, in marked contrast to the celebrations of Epiphany in other European countries.

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