The two seasons I love most in life are elections and Christmas. As we near the year’s end, can you imagine my surfeit of happiness to have had not only our own election (and a double dissolution at that) but a US presidential contest to boot in 2016? And of course, Brexit, who could forget Brexit? While Hillary and Malcolm won’t perhaps share my joy, this psephologist is quite literally humming her Messiah all the way to Christmas after an epic year of campaign riches.
I haven’t been much of a collector in life but I was introduced to a tradition many years ago while a student in California that I’ve now made my own. While spending 12 months in the US as a Rotary Exchange student, I was given Christmas ornaments by my American ‘family’ and friends. Their tradition was to collect baubles inscribed with dates and names to mark special moments and people so that the tree would have meaning, rather than just be an assembly of randomised glitter and glass. Among my circle therefore, a young adult’s tree would bear a handful of ornaments collected during their childhood while a much older person would have a tree groaning with paraphernalia that told a story of loved ones, travel and a life’s story.
Since that time, I’ve gradually built up my own collection so that it could now rival an octogenarian’s effort. I have carried back countless pieces of exquisite glass confection in hand-luggage from places like Germany and France which take Christmas seriously: there’s no ‘Made in Guangzhou’ rubbish for my tree. Among my hundreds of precious pieces, there’s a stained glass replica of the ‘Rose’ window from Notre Dame (in miniature of course), turtle doves in a gilded cage, a hand-blown Viennese orb painted in filigree, my school girl contributions which have held up well and some wonderful creations that I bought in April with my mother from Westminster Abbey’s gift shop. There’s old glass balls from Georges (a much missed Melbourne institution), silver bells with Victorian hallmarks, ceramics from an Istanbul market, a little lace mantilla from Madrid and tiny wooden skis from Vail. Everyone item has a story and when I unwrap them each December, it’s like catching up with long-absent friends.
About this time each year, I start looking around for something special to add to my collection. My long-suffering husband has learnt not to travel overseas in December after many times being sent on a mission worthy of a crusading knight to collect a collectible and bring it home. I don’t browse; I shop with intent in the style of a heat-seeking missile. But when it comes to ornaments, hours can drift by before I notice the time. My family have learnt to live with my addiction and some even kindly feed the habit when travelling themselves. Others preach cold-turkey abstinence but I know they wouldn’t feel it was Christmas without my tree.
About ten years ago, my love of elections, politics and Christmas collided when I spent a frozen January in Washington DC and not far from the White House, I came across a nondescript little shop that was home to the White House Historical Association. Founded by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961, the Historical Association creates an ornament each year to mark a political milestone in the life of the United States. Imagine that – politics, campaigns and Christmas all wrapped up in a beautifully crafted piece of yuletide beauty to swing on a tree? You won’t be surprised to know I have progressively bought every ornament the White House artists have produced. There’s wonderful little carriages based on horse-drawn vehicles used on Inauguration Day in times past. There’s miniature stone edifices of the north and south porticos in the same stone as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There’s a gold-plated frame holding a porcelain portrait of Lincoln, a Republican Party elephant and a chandelier based on the jewel that hangs in the state ballroom.
But joy of joys, my favourite political piece has to be my Ronald Reagan – never fear, other than Jackie O’s founding contribution, this is a tree devoid of Democrats! I live in hope that one day the Liberal Party might start a collection of their own and I can buy a John Howard or Robert Menzies (although there would be a few that would stay on the shelf but I will leave that to you to work out who).
Yes, I will be honest – putting up the tree is a production. I gave up on a real tree many years ago; great in theory but in Australia, the hot weather reality makes them a needle shedding nightmare for someone like me who vacuums like it is an Olympic sport. The tree never goes up before 1 December (and always comes down on the Epiphany but I’ve given up trying to explain tree protocol to heathens who have forgotten the Christ in Christmas). I set aside a whole day and once the carefully stacked tubs come out from storage, I start layering the tree with military precision. I don’t like company as I don’t want distractions which suits Brian as he has long realised no matter how well he hangs an ornament; he will never get it right. As soon as he hears the choral strains of Kings College Cambridge, he heads for the door and doesn’t return until dusk when the tree is done and I sit satisfied, albeit exhausted, basking in its mellow glow.
Without children of our own, I live in hope I will have a nephew or niece that comes to love my tree as much as I do. That lucky child (or unlucky, depending on how you think about it) will then be a part of my Christmas ritual and will learn the stories that accompany the inanimate objects that have brought me such joy and signal a time of year when we focus on the things that really matter and look forward to a new year and new page – fresh with promise and renewal.