I have never followed the rules when it comes to Christmas, and certainly not when it comes to my Christmas tree. Unlike most children, I spent a long time resisting Christmas, as it coincides with my birthday and I always considered it to be a showy, crowd-pleasing attention-seeker at the side of my always very subdued, dreary even, birthday two days before it. My birthday was Bradford, the city I was born in, while Christmas was the huge, brash Leeds, forever casting a shadow. Oh, sure, I got excited and enjoyed the presents just like everyone else, but as I got older, I started to see Christmas as a rival.
But the thing about Christmas is it’s not going anywhere, and neither was my birthday, so we were kind of stuck with each other in our “special relationship”. So when I finally grew up emotionally as well as physically, I threw myself into it, especially when I got a place of my own. Helped by the fact I now had a little sister 20 years my junior, I banished my latent Ebeneezer Scrooge tendencies and transformed into a slimmer, less beardy – and hopefully slightly more attractive, I have to say – Santa Claus.
I remember scandalising my entire social circle when I bought my first ever Christmas tree and put it up and decorated it on 31 October – but that’s not the weirdest Christmas tree-related story in my oeuvre. There’s more. One Christmas, feeling a little lost and searching for comfort, I took my relationship with my tree to the next level.
The run-up to Christmas 2010 was a strange time for me. It was my first Christmas as a single man in a very long time, eight years, and my very first living alone. I was going on a lot of dates at the time – that was my thing, then, you see – and meeting all kinds of men, with varying degrees of suitability.
There was the one who was very handsome but slightly too boring, who I knew that, once he saw what I was really like beyond the wry politeness and shy smiles of our dinner dates, would feel like Maxim de Winter on his honeymoon, listening to Rebecca tell him all about herself. There was the other guy who tried to get me into radio comedies and thought it charming to take me on over eight dates without trying to kiss me even once. There was the younger guy who was worried about growing old alone – he was 24, FFS; it was like an early demo version of that Adele album – and used to get really drunk because I “made him nervous”. And there was the one guy I could never go home without, who followed me everywhere. That would be me.
As I’d only been single a few months, I didn’t really know how to be on my own, so when I was alone in my flat, I pretty much carried on as normal, like my boyfriend was in the other room or on his way home from work. I had always made a great performance of decorating the Christmas tree every year, once even putting it up on Halloween – I have no regrets, so whatever – and so I decided this year would be no different.
I dragged it into my now much smaller lounge-kitchen, grappled with it for ten minutes or so spreading out all the branches, cursed myself for not detangling the lights properly before putting them away last year, and unpacked all the baubles and ribbons and garlands. I am not known for my subtlety when it comes to decorations; every branch must have something happening. I like my tree to look like it was decorated by 10 drunk Alexis Carrington Colbys; tasteful is for the other 10 months of the year.
It took me well over an hour to get everything just right, zhuzhing the branches and fiddling with the star on top for an additional 15 minutes, and then standing back to take it all in. And I turned, as I would have done every other year, to get the reaction of my boyfriend, who would usually be sitting on the sofa waiting for me to get out of the way of the TV, but, of course, he wasn’t there. And the tree knew it.
The tree didn’t feel the same in my new flat. It was shoved between two pieces of furniture, its full glory muted by an armchair that I mainly used as a surface for folded laundry. It looked sad and gaudy in the midst of such depravity. Friends came round occasionally and congratulated me on it, and a few dates came back to mine and exclaim “Bloody hell, you’ve got a Christmas tree! I didn’t think single people bothered!” but the rest of the time it was just me and the tree. I felt sorry for it.
In December something strange happens to single men on dating sites. They become more romantic, more hopeful – but also less inclined to be nice to you if you feel you’re not right for them. I would arrive home from dates feeling either totally disillusioned after two hours of sitting buried in cheap pub tinsel with a Givenchy-scented sociopath or cautiously hopeful following six rounds of drinks, slammed back trying to make myself seem interesting. The tree would always be there, waiting for me, shimmering peacefully, at odds with the rest of the room, which would earned me a lecture on tidiness from a Tasmanian devil. On seeing its shimmering garlands, emotions would run high.
One bitterly cold night in particular, I came home after a sweet date with a guy who I knew wouldn’t be right for me, but had seemed very keen. I’d watched his eyes dance all over me the entire night and it was both exciting and frightening. I knew I’d see him again, but I knew, ultimately, it could never go anywhere. I walked into the flat in the dark and, without taking off my coat and scarf, flicked all the necessary switches to make the tree glow into life. It sat in silent judgement, determined to bring some festive cheer to my laminate-floored cell. I felt a rush of loneliness, hopelessness and affection that I can only imagine I’d ever experience again if I watched a deer be born, and went over and hugged my Christmas tree. Yes, I hugged it. Briefly, but tightly. I can see it now, my death grip around its overly baubled frame, no doubt eyes moist with festive cheer and longing. I felt a connection – my being had never seemed so Christmassy. The euphoria, however, was fleeting.
The tree’s exact thoughts on the matter have sadly gone unrecorded, but its actions have certainly left their mark. In retaliation at this violation, the tree evicted two glass baubles, dashing them to the floor, extinguished three or four of its lights and wilfully listed to one side. I released it, crushing the fragments of bauble between my feet, and looked back at the tree. A bachelor pad like this is no place for a tree like you, I thought. After it saw out that miserable Christmas, I packed it back in its box and left it there for the rest of the time I lived alone. Every tree needs an audience, and a loyal one at that.
The tree didn’t reappear until I moved in with my current boyfriend last year. It still lolled to one side and helpfully shed more “needles” on being brought out of the box than a real tree would manage in its entire Christmas run. We did our best with it, even titivating it with new baubles and a dinkier star, but it looked tired now, like it belonged to a different era. The last pensioner sipping a pint of bitter and doing his pools forms in a newly renovated gastropub.
I got a new tree this year, with some more new decorations and a new set of lights. It’s bigger, more realistic and much grander. I am in awe of it, and can’t stop staring into the very centre of it, but I do feel bad for my old tree. It’s still stored under the eaves, waiting for one more Christmas Day that will never come, not under my roof at least – and all because I couldn’t keep my hands to myself and ruined it.
The moral of the story: do *not* hug your Christmas tree. However blissful you may temporarily feel, the tree really doesn’t like it.
Also, maybe cut down on the drinking. It’s a tree. What the hell are you doing?