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Back to the attic – Mary O’Donnell on packing up the Christmas trees and decorations

A cornucopia that refuses fashion, curation, symmetry or what some imagine to be good taste

The annual curation of Christmas trees has ended. Our daughter has flown the coop again and it’s left to us to unpick the festive accoutrements, take down the trees (plural), and remove the various Ho Ho Ho, Joy and Noël signs that perch in windows, on shelves, on a bookcase, urging us to get into the spirit of the season.

“God almighty,” my husband moans, stumbling upon another robin, then a reindeer posing casually with a cigarette between his hooves, finally a Santa playing the trumpet, not to mention the various pieces of dried-up holly that have crumbled down behind various pictures.

Meanwhile, the attic ladder is down as we separate fragile from non-fragile and once again set about boxing it all in 10 separate boxes.

Thanks to our daughter, I admit the two trees always look fantastic. Prior to Christmas a compromise is arrived at on the emotionally testing question of the lights. That is, all white or all colour? She, naturally, prefers a classy and creamy white uniformity, and certainly nothing that flashes. I, reared in a world in which the tree appeared on December 22nd and carried one set only of coloured bell-shaped lights, as well as some tinsel in colours that ranged from silver, to gold, and eventually to wild green, purples and a very seasonal red, am entirely comfortable with such psychedelia.


The house of my childhood smelled of fresh pine tree, because the room in which the tree stood was cold when out of use and so the tree couldn’t dry out.

Gifts were placed at its base on Christmas Eve, and for religious reasons a single thick yellow candle glowed in the window all night, a welcome light for the wanderer and the lost.

I still want to hang the fragile baubles of other decades, in all their lurid colour, and spray them with something silvery, I want to find a perfect yellow star for the top of the tree, and to hang miniature gift boxes from the bushy branches of a very real tree which imbues the room with its resiny smell.

This year a non-committee decision is taken to use both of our fake trees, but somehow the Great Descent from the attic involves a near-accident, as someone’s foot slips on the steps resulting in an entire half tree with its centre metal pole crashing down, and a painful but not seriously injured ankle later that day.

The end result is magnificent. Daughter has her perfectly lit and decorated tree of charm and gaiety, replete with white lights, spiralling golden swags, beautiful ornaments collected here and there over the years and which remind us of holidays in Italy, Australia, California and Asia.

I, on the other hand, indulge my childish delight on the other tree, with rainbow lights which, she tells me are so tacky and 1980s.

I give in to her plea not to set them to flash mode.

Perhaps the Christmas tree has become a fetishistic entity, the gratification for which is found in the sense of it being curated into a look. A thrown-together work, the spirit of unconsidered festive glee, is still to be found in a declining number of houses and apartments. I know this from car journeys around the city and, paradoxically, in more isolated parts of the island. Left to my own unmonitored resources, a cornucopia that refuses fashion, curation, symmetry or what some imagine to be good taste is preferable to a tidy tree.

But tastes change and evolve. The prim and perfect tree adorned with white lights, perfectly measured and scalloped swags, clusters of strategically added berries and pine-cones, and a very pert star, is one which in my view reflects a need to control even how seasonal beauty is decided.

It’s now interpreted and thematised, rather than resembling a Tannenbaum or fir tree, which reflects constancy and ever-greenness during the dark days around Christmas.

The uncurated tree also has its roots in a culture once defined by a casual “Sure it’ll do” and “Isn’t it grand?” approach to life. And perhaps also, it signifies a need to sink briefly in the middle of winter into a less disciplined approach, in a world in which everything is so monitored, adjusted and customised.

“God almighty,” my husband mutters to himself again. He’s just found a nutcracker king decoration that eluded us in dismantling the tree because it had fallen off and was tucked invisibly into the folds of the soft red velvet around the base.

And I’ve just recovered a final blue and sparkling white Ho Ho Ho sign lurking in the porch.

“I’m booking us for New Year therapy,” I tell him.