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Fir and Fire

We put up our Christmas tree this weekend. Time was when our children could not wait to get out the box of decorations. One year all the baubles and gewgaws were at five year olds’ height and had to be ‘adjusted’ overnight by a slightly taller fairy. Only slightly taller mind. That Christmas fairy has now been overshot by the offspring who tower above her as she wields the tinsel.

Of course now that the kids are in their 20s it is left to us to decorate the tree. We always have a real tree for the beauty and scent, plastic is not my go-to resource when it comes to festivity although I admit that tinsel is not exactly born of Mother Earth.

For many years now I have wanted to buy several trees and make a forest in our front room. I envisage us resting amongst the branches like a family of lowland gorillas, with a mince pie in one hand and a book in the other. No one else at Slavin Castle has ever shared any enthusiasm for this idea.

I liked candles until the internet informed me of the toxic terrors billowing out of the softly flickering light. I also love fairy lights. I need a twinkle or two to pretty up the dark at this time of year and frighten off the monsters.

Back in the 70s (boom) we used to go to Bury Market to purchase new or replacement baubles.  My mum had a romantic heart and was struck by such small treasures as porcelain  angels and, most memorably for me, a box of sugar houses.

They were in a cardboard box divided up to make a little square haven for each miniature cottage which nestled in rustly tissue paper. They were made from that flimsy blown and silvered glass. Picture postcard in style, these were not post modern fairytale buildings. Each tiny dwelling had the requisite chimney and glittered snow sparkling on a pitched roof. The windows were symmetrically placed beside the welcoming door. They looked like genoise fancies drenched in glitter.

People talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’. This sort of person tends to be  a militant Christian who holds that the ‘true’ Christmas is all about Jesus being the light of the world and shepherds gathered round a manger, in their way, they’d be right.  Christ-mas is about that. If we’re seeking truth however, then we have to remember that this was a festival hijacked from ancient times and beliefs. Pagans were and are, more elementally inclined. Before wise men and Herod there was Yule and Saturnalia.

Yule and the winter solstice are all about lighting the darkness.  To hunters and gatherers the outside world  of the sun and the seasons was paramount. The sun lit the world.  That’s not simply a belief system, that’s a scientific fact. We revolve around the sun. The Celts believed the sun rested for twelve days in Winter and lit Yule logs to keep away the dark and banish bad spirits.  In certain quarters it is now thought that the winter solstice at Stonehenge was more significant than that at midsummer. The winter solstice marks the the turning towards the new sun and after the shortest day the light inches back.

‘True’ meaning depends on your perspective. Some may look into the manger. Others might look out through Odin’s eye, for a connection to the natural world, to mistletoe still hanging in the tree, to the pink light of a frosty dawn, to the whipping wind and the wild rain, to the hedgerows red and orange with berries, to the grey sky cloaked with cloud, and on, further, to the stars.



If you’d like the gift of a free book to read by your Christmas tree, just tell me where to send it

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‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge


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