Family Tree

Richard Castles gets wistful and remembers the deciduous plastic Christmas tree of his youth.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
How lovely are thy branches!

For 30 years my family spent Christmas in Lakes Entrance, Victoria, where my grandparents had a holiday house. We drove down from Canberra each year, seven of us in a station wagon with two weeks’ worth of clothes, beach gear and the Christmas presents. Even with the bulk of it strapped to the roof rack with octopus ties, there was no room for any sort of Christmas tree.

That lived in the cupboard at the beach house, and one of the first duties on arrival was pulling out the crumpled cardboard box and assembling the plastic and wire installation that we generously referred to as “a tree”.

It basically consisted of a wooden stem, like a broomstick, with holes into which you inserted wire branches that sprouted green tinsel strips for leaves. Its tripod base was wonky, so it leant at about a 30-degree angle, putting the little angel who sat on top in a precarious-looking launch position for the entire holidays. Prior to draping it with tinsel, it basically resembled a fairytale giant’s upturned dishwashing brush.

The original German folk song ‘O Tannenbaum’, on which ‘O Christmas Tree’ is based, celebrates the constancy of its eponymous fir tree, standing strong and faithfully through summer heat and winter snow. Any connection between that tree and the tangled mess that stood on the hearth in our living room was a stretch to say the least, and hardly an inspiration to break out into song.

We were not great at refreshing the stock of Christmas decorations either, so every year there seemed to be a little less tinsel and fewer and fewer baubles, either through breakage or the same mystical process that makes Scrabble letters disappear. It wasn’t too many years before only the front of the tree could be strategically adorned to give an illusion of fullness – a green strand of tinsel diagonally up, a red strand diagonally down, and a spatial algorithm for the placement of perhaps five baubles.

What was even more mysterious was that every year there were fewer and fewer branches. Where they went, no-one knew. Perhaps someone was using them as a toilet brush during the night, or Rudolph needed an emergency replacement antler, but – and I swear by the Christmas star above – by our last Christmas at Lakes Entrance there was one branch in the Christmas tree box. We stuck it in and dangled a bit of tinsel from it. I can’t find a suitable metaphor for what this looked like.

Maybe this arboreal thinning was symbolic of the dwindling tradition of those family Christmases, as elder children branched off and out to new celebrations of their own. Maybe it was symbolic of a more general decline in the Christian meaning of Christmas, although the tree is a relatively recent addition to tradition, thanks in large part to Charles Dickens.

As a secular spectacle, however, the Christmas tree is bigger and brighter than ever, multi-storey varieties adorned in lights rising up in shopping malls around the country, along with the showy house lights and plastic installations that bedeck the roofs, porches and front yards of so many homes. They put our little, overly deciduous plastic tree to shame.

But, as Dr Seuss’ story of the Grinch reminds us, Christmas isn’t about the material stuff, and our spindly little tree, with its minimalist decorative attachments, stole nothing from our seasonal joy, as we sat around it on Christmas Eve watching Carols by Candlelight or opening the presents on Christmas morning – which incidentally played a key role in stopping it from falling over.

Whatever creed to which you do or don’t subscribe, however you celebrate the holidays, let the Tannenbaum stand as a symbol of faithfulness to the spirit of peace and goodwill to all.

We weren’t really the home-carolling type, but I have no doubt that at that last Christmas at Lakes Entrance, somewhere in each of our hearts we were singing as joyously as ever…

O Christmas stick, O Christmas stick
How lovely is thy branch!

Richard Castles is a Melbourne writer and frequent contributor to The Big Issue. He believes the secret to life is regular engagement with ducks.

First published in ed#650.

Illustration by Lauren Rebbeck.