Throughout my childhood, every December we went to Newcastle to see my mother’s best friend, Paddy. Paddy’s Christmas extravaganza was the highlight of my year! First, the pantomime (we once stumbled across the cast in a side-street restaurant… It was a bizarre combination of Linda Lusardi, Geoff Capes and Kenny Baker (at the time, Page-3 model, World’s Strongest Man and R2D2). From there, Fenwick’s Christmas Window (a MUST-SEE if you never have) and a local garden-centre decorated like Lapland but in Gosforth! Paddy bought armfuls of decorations there every year; my parents bought my sister and me one decoration each because they couldn’t afford more than that.
That was where I fell in love with the most beautiful Christmas tree I have ever seen; an 8ft tree with branches right to the floor. I begged to take it home with us, but no, our living room was too small.
Two years later when we moved to a house in Carlisle with 12ft ceilings, I asked again!
Again, it was denied; they just couldn’t afford a new tree.
The following year (aged 13) that 8ft tree was all I wanted for Christmas. Mum gave Dad one of “those looks” and the tree was mine; on the condition I decorated it from then on!
That tree and our growing collection of decorations were a perfect match and my sister and I have added decorations ourselves over the years. None of them match; there are no coordinated sets of baubles and no “theme”; some are cute, some are beautiful and some are downright bizarre!
A bear sitting on a drum and a little crate of toys marked ‘North Pole’ from our Christmas trips with Paddy (and a lovely Christmas reminder of her since she died in 2004). A clip-on peacock documents my lifelong affinity with them (‘peacock’ was my first word and aged 2, I tottered over to a particularly unfriendly one and still have a scar on my forehead for my troubles). A corduroy reindeer from when Starbucks first came to Newcastle, (my University flatmates and I agreed we would not set foot in Starbucks for the first time until it snowed to ensure the “full Starbucks experience” (i.e. as much like a movie-set in New York at Christmas as possible). But then it didn’t snow! One morning, with a few floaty snowflakes in the wind, we all ditched lectures to sit in Starbuck’s window, but the coffee machine had broken and the tables were piled high with dirty plates! It was so disappointing that we never went back but still chortle about it when we make our annual pilgrimage to see Fenwick’s window together!)
The hideous ones are mainly thanks to my sister. She worked in America as an aerospace engineer testing a new aircraft. Her first Christmas in California, the company produced commemorative decorations and she sent one home (an F35-Lightning-II in a wreath of flags) with the characteristically sarcastic message, “Because nothing says ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men’ quite like a 5th generation fighter aircraft!”
She later moved to Maryland and we road-tripped coast to coast collecting a haul of decorations en route: a sleigh bell from San Francisco, Santa in a reindeer rubber ring from San Diego, a “Get your kicks on Route 66” decoration from Arizona and a pottery camel made by the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico. On arriving in Maryland she sent home our most grotesque decoration: a crab-shell painted like Santa’s face!
In January 2005, only hours after taking the tree down, a flood hit Carlisle. We scooped the decorations up in a blanket and hauled them upstairs. My tree was lost, but the decorations survived. When the house was refurbished, I chose another tree which graced my parents’ living room for a decade, but only days after putting it up last year, a second flood hit Carlisle and that tree was lost too! As the water poured into their street, my parents stripped the tree of the decorations and saved them again. It sounds unlucky but earlier that year Dad decided to store the decorations in his workshop rather than back in the attic. If the tree had not been up when the flood hit, the decorations would’ve all been lost too. They are all the more precious now having survived when everything else did not.
Our tree represents our family history; where we’ve been, what we’ve done and the friends we’ve had. My parents’ frugality produced an extraordinary collection that I would totally recommend gathering for yourself. My mother even uses it to store sentimental things which have no obvious place to live. Since retiring from Nursing, she volunteers in a school and when one little girl recently left, she thanked Mum by giving her a necklace with a big elephant pendant. As Mum doesn’t wear necklaces she wasn’t sure what to do with this little gift, but exchanging the chain with a ribbon solved the problem. This year the elephant has been added to the tree.
Cheap or expensive, ugly or beautiful, they all have a place. The collection has become an heirloom in our family and one day my sister and I will divide them between us to keep the memories alive…. She can definitely have the crab!
Dr Catherine Nesbitt is a Clinical Psychologist in the Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology Service at NHS Dumfries and Galloway.