This Side of the Pond – Dec. 12

By Sarah Pridgeon

Christmas has been sneaky again this year. I’d hoped to avoid the last-minute panic by accepting Thanksgiving as my official starting point, but it seems to have done the opposite. There’s far too much going on this December and I’m already ready for a nap.

Somehow, between now and the week of Christmas, I must complete a list of tasks that includes, but is certainly not limited to, packing and preparing for my visit to England, finishing up my work, making or purchasing gifts for loved ones on both sides of the ocean and getting them wrapped and ready to give. I must also fill several issues of this newspaper with interesting happenings, of course.

When you have a list of things to do that stretches out longer than your arm, it’s always best to start small. And so we set out to decorate the tree, which is my favorite part of the season.

My husband has a very unique take on Christmas trees, but one that makes my life considerably easier. He says a tree made up of random items in ill-assorted patterns is far more meaningful than a color-coordinated creation.

According to my husband, a Christmas tree is the physical embodiment of a family. As you add the individual parts, they seem random and out of place. But when you’ve put them all together, you have an amazing whole that works in perfect harmony.

While I’m pretty sure that this is a well-considered excuse to quite literally throw baubles around, it does mean I can indulge my disorganization. The husband worries that I will eventually put my foot down and insist that the tinsel lines up in pretty rows. Little does he know that I wouldn’t be capable of creating an organized display even if I felt so inclined.

The messy tree tradition is partly linked to the older items in the decoration box that remind us of Christmases past and partly to the baubles we’ve collected over the last few years. My aunt and uncle have a custom of buying a Christmas decoration from every destination they travel to (although, as my uncle used to be a pilot, I’m not exactly sure how they fit them all on).

We loved this idea and decided to do a similar thing: every year, we add at least one decoration to our collection that has a special meaning. When we put the tree together, we can look at each ornament and remember its story.

For our first Christmas together, we bought a heart-shaped decoration with space for a photograph of the two of us. I admit this was a bit soppy, but I’d never seen an ornament like it before – apparently, we don’t celebrate personal Christmas milestones back in England.

My mother, meanwhile, gifted us a giant bauble with a glittery Union Jack emblazoned on it. The Union Jack was a bit of a theme for her that year, presumably to jog my memory if I start to forget where I come from.

Thanks to that Christmas haul, I also now possess a Union Jack phone cover, tissue set, toilet seat cover, car window sleeve, set of coasters, plush heart, cake tray and piggy bank, as well as an actual flag. I even own a Union Jack-themed plastic kitchen spatula, but it’s never been used because it feels disrespectful to dip my nation’s pennant in boiling oil.

We brought back baubles from our trip to England the next Christmas, including a red telephone box and some craft pieces from Poole Quay, where I spent a lot of time in my youth. This year, we’ve found a decoration that requires you to imprint a pet’s paw into a clay circle, which the dog is now eyeing with panic.

A single hour later and the tree was covered in glitz, lights shining merrily and the star placed firmly at the apex. It was an easy start to the season, though I did spend the evening staring critically at it, clambering to my feet every time I spotted cramped clusters and lopsided branches. I can get behind the idea of a messy tree, as long as it’s messy in an organized sort of way.

Meanwhile, the cat was having the time of her life. The tree spent the year stored on the highest shelf of the busiest corner of Dad-in-Law’s crowded shop. At some point, it seems, it became a bridge across the rafters for whatever squirrels and mice were using the shop as a shelter.

The box apparently now smells deliciously of prey – or, at least, it did. Wild-eyed, she leaped on top and attacked it with vicious determination, scrabbling her way inside and chewing on the corners. I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked that an indoors cat can’t tell the difference between a cardboard box and a squirrel, but she still didn’t need to swallow the entire lid.

All of this activity was too much for the dog’s nervous disposition. The Christmas tree was now standing where her bed usually lies, which she took as a sign of impending doom. The cat’s battle strategy sent her cowering into the corner, where she pawed despondently at the elf hat I insisted she wear and refused to come out until bedtime.

The only positive aspect of the cat’s wanton destruction was that it took her attention away from the tree. Last year, she stole so many baubles that we were still finding them under the furniture in July. Unfortunately, it was mere hours before she corrected her oversight and sauntered over to inspect it. I can already count at least three gaps where baubles used to be.

As it turns out, a messy Christmas tree is a beautiful concept and one that brings joy above and beyond the sum of its parts. It is, however, a lot less effective when it’s bare of decorations and there’s a cat face poking angrily through the branches. My list of tasks may already be too long to complete, but it appears that I will need to add a final item: “win the War of Bauble Attrition once and for all.”