One of the highlights of our grandchildren’s Christmas centres on our bringing the Christmas tree home. At the risk of drawing attention to a talent, I must admit that bringing in the tree is something that I’m rather good at. After all, I’ve had quite a bit of practice, I bought my first tree home at Christmas 1936.
It wasn’t much of an event in itself but it eventually directed my attention to a succession of older, colder Christmases that began well before my memory.
The tree of ’36, though, was a personal first. I should say, right now that the idea wasn’t mine. It grew from late November when I brought a quarter of the school library home – a book of Christmas stories. Now there were stories with a touch of colour in them, trees, snow and coaches – just like Christmas cards sent up from Adelaide.
December on the Broken Hill line seemed different. But sometimes something can be done about a difference. Real snow and coaches may have been beyond us but a tree could still be managed. We’d have to walk a bit, but we knew where one was. A pine, too, of sorts, a native, but still a pine. In fact we knew exactly where it was. Up there a tree stuck in your mind.
We brought it home at mid-day – slowly. Shade had shifted underneath things. By dark we had it kerosene-tinned, cardboard-starred, snowed with cotton wool and brightened by balloons – three of them – survivors of a boxful that didn’t like the climate. As the evening passed wrapped parcels hid the kerosene tin. It was a pity about the snow. Cotton wool can only go so far. Snow seemed essential in a decent Christmas. Pictures in the book were full of it.
Then morning – very early. Even in the kitchen dimness I could see that something was very wrong. The tree stood skeletal. Needles circled the kerosene tin in a grey-green litter.
“God, it’s moulted! Hell, it could have waited until tomorrow.” My rising whine drew my sister in. She sneered seraphically, told me that she’d told me so and scuttled off to tell Herself that I was blasphemous again.
That evening I went back to books, where things were far less disappointing. When he came in to take the lamp away I asked him how real snow feels. I knew that he had seen a cold winter. He had once shown me photographs of snow and guns along the Somme. I remembered them that night and asked, “Did you ever have a Christmas day with snow?”
“Yes, three”, he answered.
“Three white Christmases – three in a row? Gee, you were lucky!”.
A match struck, lit a hand-rolled cigarette and died.
“Well, yes,” he said, “some were”.