Sunday, 11 January 2009

Christmas Memories

I have just begun to take the Christmas decorations down. I never hurry this process and this year was no exception. We were busy enough before Jonny and Cat returned to uni and I didn't want to waste precious time with this rather depressing chore. Of course, it's always lovely to clean and tidy after the holidays but the rooms always look somewhat bare initially.

This year was different.
As I was carefully stripping the tree of its ornaments, laying each down in its allotted pile, I realised that every little trinket had a precious memory attached to it.
At the top of the tree hung an angel. Bald head of crumpled silver foil, skirt made from a doily which had once been pink, but is now faded, and silver foil wings folded concertina-fashion. The wings are torn in places, but every year we tweak them back into shape. She is 15 years old, made by Catharine when she was in my friend Shirley's class. Shirley is now a deliriously happy grandma, living in New Zealand.

Just below the angel is a wonderfully beaded star, made by Maasai ladies who live in a remote part of Kenya, working for a bead project which has been started by missionary friends of ours. We have known Peter and Tammy since their oldest boy was one year old. He goes to college this year, leaving their home in Tanzania to travel to the US.

More bead angels hang over the fireplace, hovering over the African nativity set. Made from several different colours of clay, the expressions on the faces are wonderful. Mary, kneeling in front of the crib, looks mildly surprised; Joseph next to her as if he is just regaining consciousness. The shepherd is posing awkwardly for a photoshoot he never wanted to take part in anyway, while the cow and donkey look surprisingly smug. As for the kings… polite interest best describes them, as if they know they are in the right place but can't quite believe it.
Below, along the length of the mantelpiece, hang a chain of claydough stars, hearts and bells, painted gold. We made these when Catharine was 14, along with a set of advent figures, each hand crafted with a relevant Bible verse on the back. We hang these, each day of Advent, on a tree of twigs, starting on 1st December.
Back to the tree. First to come off are half a dozen tiny woven sisal baskets, ciondo from Kenya. Miniature versions of the baskets the women carry their wares to market in, long straps hanging off their foreheads as they balance the heavy basket on their backs. They are all different: one in particular looks very authentic – it is faded and dirty. We left it on the tree by mistake one year, discovering it several months later. Another is artistically woven with beads and seeds, its colourful strap too delicate for real use: a tourist offering. Then there is a minute flat coiled basket, and one, just a couple of inches tall, with a conical cover: it comes from the Sudan. Every year we fill these with sweets – jelly babies, usually. We started to do that on our first Christmas in Guernsey, when Richard was still living here on his own before we all moved over.

Another group of ornaments is reminiscent of my years teaching English in Sweden. Jultomte (Santa Claus' elves) made of grey, black, red and white wool and felt with hand drawn faces, one made by a neighbour, others given by pupils.

There is a Christmas bird, a bullfinch which I made from wool with a group of women I taught banking English to. There are small straw Christmas stars and the 'Syndabocken' , the Biblical goat onto which the sins of the people were put. Red or white crocheted hearts. At Christmas Swedish homes are symphonies of red and white, of wool, straw and wood. Not a piece of tinsel or glitter in sight, just a plethora of candles and natural materials. I smile at the memories.
Next come two small teddy bears, each sporting a red crocheted cap and waistcoat, wearing narrow green neckties. Presents to Jonny and Cat from my mother, proudly dangling from the bottom of the tree. Then there are 5 angels – there were 6. One of them – she must be getting on for twenty years old now - came from Kenya, from the Swedish community's Lucia fair. My friend Gunnel made small tomte out of tiny gourds, dressing them in red hats and scarves; someone else made these exquisite angels from white and silver card paper. The other angels are mere infants: Cat and I made them from card and glitter as placemarkers for our Christmas meal two years ago, each with our name on.
Now I can glimpse the animals lurking in the branches; lion, rhino, hippo, ostrich, giraffe, tortoise, elephant, impala, zebra, warthog… most are made of gilded wood, given to me in a banana fibre box by a parent at the prep school I taught in.

Others are made of china, mended several times after contact with hard wooden floors. These were made by Dee, a white Kenyan friend, each lovingly handpainted with bizarre detail; the giraffe wears a red scarf around its neck, zebra and wildebeest carry striped stockings dangling from their mouths or horns: the lion wears a large red-spotted tie.
After that it is the turn of the seeds, acquired with the children were babies. I painted these with silver paint, normally used as primer for the gliders we owned and flew over the game lodge Treetops and the Aberdare Mountains. Sharp whistling thorn, flat-pursed jacaranda seeds, eucalyptus – the paint has stayed on for twenty years. One of the flowerheads – I don't even know its name – the children found in their godfather's garden. "That would make a good Christmas decoration," said his sister, my dear friend Mary, who I lost to cancer a dozen years ago. And so it did.
Tucked in among them is a little cluster of foil leaves, markings pressed into the surface, which Jonny made when he was 12. And a few silver fir cones from our garden here in Guernsey.

The memories are flooding by me now. My mind flits back and forth over the years, but now I shall describe them chronologically. A tiny version of the New Testament with a gilt metal frame, just an inch tall. My mother put it in my stocking when I was a teenager and it has miraculously survived thirty years and many house moves. The print is so tiny that it cannot be read without a magnifying glass.
A carved painted wooden toucan, from my friend Lisa who I met after I had been married just a couple of months. The silver star, embroidered with gold thread, which Jonny made when he was almost four. I took his skill with his hands for granted: it was a long time before I realized that his artistic ability is exceptional. A Christmas picture made from a discarded card and interwoven toothpicks by my American friend Evelyn Rinella. The fretwork elephant and angel which Joy, the sister of missionary friends, gave us the Christmas she spent with us. A blue and white painted fish from Sri Lankan friends. The miniature framed photographs of Jonny and Cat aged 6. (The frames were bought at a craft stall at a dog show in Nairobi. Made in America. How bizarre is that?)
A sequinned felt heart from an 8 year old girl I taught. A tiny carved wooden fish, less than an inch long, with a cross inside.
A candle made out of spun glass, given to Catharine some years ago. A wooden painted heart, bought in a craft shop here in Guernsey by Jonny and Cat for me.
A glass bauble which looks like a wrapped sweet, given to Cat by a beloved teacher.
Two small felt stockings, which came filled with sweets and a handkerchief from my prayer partner Sarah last year.
A banana fibre and bead rhino and zebra from Uganda, from friends with MAF here to whom we give a little support.

And, hidden away in the branches, a decoration made of tiny ceramic birds, relics of a Kenyan necklace.

It's not designer. It's not carefully coordinated – just a mismatch of colours and materials. It's not even aesthetic – though Cat does a wonderful job every year of hanging ornaments symmetrically around the tree. Yet it's ours. Our memories, our lives, our family.

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