Bury St Edmunds columnist Nicola Miller with her take on Christmas
My first thought upon hearing that a large inflatable Santa had escaped and blocked a road in Wisbech was that my husband had been shopping for Christmas decorations again and had somehow lost control of them.
My second thought was a fervent hope that he didn’t see that story because if he discovers that car-sized inflatable Santas are easily available, he will want one too. In his view, it will go nicely with the three-foot knitted Santa that is currently sitting inside the hall. It’s as if the small red-coated serial killer from Don’t Look Now has just moved in.
My husband is besotted with Christmas to the degree that it is like being married to Elf, only my elf has a sex drive and a taste for very good whisky. I’m not exactly complaining about it though; I’d rather live with him than a person who obsessively monitors the High Street for signs of Christmas and moans if these do not conform to some arbitrarily-imposed timeline.
If you consider that the Christmas tree was originally a pagan symbol for light in the darkness, a reminder that spring will again come, and fires and Yule logs were once lit on what was the longest night of the year, then it’s not surprising that people feel compelled to put their tree up earlier and earlier. There’s been a lot of darkness this year; and a feeling that we’re approaching its critical mass.
The wheel turns (yule was represented by the symbol of a wheel in old almanacs), life begins, continues, and ends, but sometimes it seems as if it might come off its axle. 2018 has been such a year.
I can’t be the only one who needs the beauty of light in the darkness and the symbolic representation of the guiding light of the Star of Bethlehem is a story that fills me with emotion even though I am not religious: the thought of all the animals in the fields and stables going down on their bended knees as the star appears, and hugeness of the sky as midnight strikes on the 24th are captivating. You don’t have to believe in God to feel wonder at a world apparently holding its breath for ... something.
The light and sparkle of Christmas decorations possess a compelling link between modernity, antiquity, ancient ritual and its modern, technological interpretation. Go back to 1882 when Edward H. Johnson, the business partner of Thomas Edison, assembled the first string of electric Christmas tree lights: it seems so long ago now but it isn’t, not really. He hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and festooned his Christmas tree with them but it would take decades for electric Christmas lights to become popular. The trend of illuminating our homes with lights only really took off after the Second World War, a time when we were emerging from a terrible darkness. But there are records dating back to 1660 of candles being placed on trees, and we know that centuries ago, Germans and Scandinavians bought pine trees into their homes as a symbol of the coming spring. Electric Christmas lights were once available only to the rich because of their complicated wiring, but a freshly felled tree was more democratic, as were candles made from tallow and beeswax. It was a German after all – Prince Albert – who established the Christmas Tree as our national, seasonal lodestar.
It’s all terribly romantic of course, and the realist in me has to admit that the reason I might be awake at midnight on Christmas Eve is that I have been wrapping gifts for three hours, driven to the point of madness by Sellotape’s ability to disappear every few minutes. It’s easy to get to the stage where one is reduced to shouting at pigeons for the duration of the holidays. But as my husband hauls down his four suitcases filled with Christmas decorations, and I brace myself for weeks of living on the combined film sets of Deck The Halls, Elf, and The Grinch (I am more the latter), I do try very hard to remember what all the glitzy kitsch really means. It’s not about mindless consumerism; his remote control holder in the shape of Santa’s trousers, the two feet high Nutcracker soldier on the mantelpiece, flashing lights around every window, and his appalling snowman Christmas jumper complete with rudely protruding carrot are all lights in the darkness.