Last Christmas, I nicked decorations from the family home to put on my tree. Invited over for dinner one evening, my mother poached them back, when my back was turned.
Like the ringing of the bells, the stench of mulled wine, and the taste of puddings and pies, decorations, particularly when homemade, can be triggers for precious memories.
Pregnant with me, my mother found out the week before she was due to travel to her native Aran for Christmas that it wouldn’t be possible.
While hardly a stable, my parents’ first flat was not fit for seasonal mirth.
To lift her spirits, my father surprised her by swiping a miniature tree from O’Connell Street and by making the decorations from the discarded match and cigarette boxes that had been taunting them since my immaculate conception, covering then in wrapping paper and cutting up Christmas cards for added sparkle.
My mother has since lost her wedding dress, my father his wedding ring, but the star made from a Cornflake box, wrapped in tinfoil, still takes pride of place atop their tree.
Many younger adults are ringing in Christmas in a new home. With childhood decorations feathering our parents’ empty hearts and nests, we have to start our own collections to get into the festive spirit.
Most people have little greenery in their homes throughout the year, yet at Christmas tap into the pagan tradition of hacking down trees and dragging them indoors, defiling their slowly rotting remains in tinsel and trinkets.
Then, the novelty wears off and we strip them bare, shoving them into a chipper, where their pulped carcasses are used to breed the next generation of topiary travesties.
Some like the stink of the real thing. Others, the convenience of plastic. Yet more succumb to pretensions, spraying twigs and opting for the minimalism of Melania Trump, whose Nightmare Before Christmas approach to decorating the White House is perhaps the one thing this administration has gotten right.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, is traditionally the day Catholic Ireland flings up its ‘crann Nollag’.
That’s ironic, given that Martin Luther is believed to be the first person to have revived the tradition.
It was St Boniface, however, who first cocked his leg over the concept, when- thumbing his nose to Marvel superhero, Thor.
He stopped a human sacrifice in the latter’s honour by chopping down the oak tree under which it was due to take place.
When he wasn’t struck down on the spot, and when a fir sprouted where the oak had once stood (it’s triangular shape representing the holy trinity), the heathens were converted and an annual horticultural bloodbath replaced the existing human one.
My parents have had a plastic tree ever since my third Christmas, when the stink of cat piss emanating from their white spruce resulted in it being thrown out in the back garden.
I decided to go ‘au naturale’ with a Nobel fir, whose own delectable scent makes it the Chanel No 1 of Christmas trees.
Once felled, a tree is in palliative care. All the more reason to treat her like a lush queen, while she is in her death throes, by keeping her away from under-floor heating, radiators, and open fires, and mainlining her with sugar water (or 7-up), a morphine drip for her sap-deprived innards.
If you want your real tree to last the month, you need to invest in a water stand (€40 for anything over six-foot). And be careful when picking a tree. They look deceptively small, when surrounded by their brethren.
“In your first year, get a good set of lights,” says Mary Ring-Mulcahy, a professional Christmas tree decorator, affiliated with Meadows & Byrne.
“There should be about 360 bulbs on a set, spaced four inches apart. The average, seven-foot Christmas tree will need two sets and I always recommend warm, white LED lights to create the perfect base for decorating.”
You don’t need expensive baubles at first. Pick one or two nice pieces up a year and then compensate with pound-store nick-knacks. But don’t be so gauche as to throw this crap up willy-nilly.
If your tree is to hold her star up high, she needs to adhere to a particular style scheme. “In Brown Thomas, we have four styles,” says Edel Woods, seasonal homeware buyer. “Christmas Carol, which is your classic greens and reds; Bejeweled, Winter Lodge; and Snow Queen, the latter of which is silver white with accent colours of navy or mint”.
Using the diamond formation — four of each design going around the tree, with five or six different types of decoration — Edel recommends mixing it up between baubles and floral clips, alternating between plain and decorative pieces that will complement, rather than compete against, one other.
“If you have kids, novelty pieces, such as a pair of shoes, or chains with letters that spell out your full name, are increasingly popular. While personalisation is coming back in a big way, people are buying little hand-embroidered, hand-stitched pieces to symbolise their first Christmas in a new home. Or baby’s first Christmas.
Or even something to represent their cat or dog.” Mary uses a peacock theme, dressing her tree with the feathers of nature’s vainest bird, matching it with baubles that are turquoise, teal, green and white.
“If you haven’t got enough money to purchase many decorations, you can make your own garlands with berries, pinecones, dried-out oranges and lemons, which are easily and cheaply acquired.”
There are also candles, oil-burners, and diffusers scented like cinnamon, cloves and cranberries to help your love of the season enter through the nose. And there is also the scent of the tree itself, which you can double-down on by purchasing or making wreaths, or by hanging mistletoe and holly around the house.
Another cheap and easy way to make your Christmas tree seem fuller is by wrapping it in ribbons and tinsel.
Thread popcorn, sweets or cookies on a string. Repurpose an old deck of cards or CDs that are no longer used for the original purpose. Print- off pictures from Facebook or Instagram and hang them with bits of tinsel off the branches.
Your tree should reflect your family, be it blood relatives or soul mates. Much of the decoration on my parents’ tree charts the many trips they have taken together; my granny used to put robins on hers to symbolise friends who had passed.
It’s a tradition we keep up, 15 years after her own death, while my obsession with the show, Twin Peaks, means there are more than a few owls on mine.
The miniature phone boxes my mother-in-law gave my mother, when they met for the first time, last year, now hang beside the ancient decorations my grandparents gave my mum and dad when they moved into their first home. And there are nods to our family’s links to aviation, the RNLI, and traditional music.
Finally, there’s your tree topper — your angel, your star, or your fairy. Our tree is now topped by my niece, Caoimhe’s homemade star, and the demented energy of her two-year-old sister, Radha, meant getting decorations up at all was an achievement.
But involving them in picking out and decorating the tree gave me more of a seasonal high than industrial-strength eggnog.