We couldn’t wait until the first Sunday in Advent. Our Christmas tree went up last night. But we had shown some patience. We’d bought the tree last weekend at a small, local Christmas market and it had been sitting outside our front door for four days before we capitulated.
By then, it already had a name: “Norman.” When I’d first seen the trees, I’d been so impressed by their symmetrical beauty that I’d actually asked the stall-owner whether they were real. I’ll give her credit, she didn’t laugh at me as she confirmed they were indeed live. Instead, it was when I asked whether I should water it that she gave me an odd look. “It’s a Norman” she replied. No more needed to be said.
My husband’s middle name is Norman. So there it was, in place of dada, we had a tree. It was only later that I realised my error. Our “Norman” is actually a “Nordmann” – a man from the North, although, in fact, it came to Europe from the East. Apparently, the species was discovered by Finnish zoologist and botanist Alexander von Nordmann around Russia in the 19thcentury and was brought across to Europe from there.
But the history of the Christmas tree goes much farther back than that. And in fact, the earliest mentions of one come from just down the road from here.
In the little town of Sélestat, about an hour and a half away from us, there are documents that clearly point to the existence of Christmas trees… in 1521! Neatly recorded in the municipal ledger from that year is a sum of 4 Schillings to pay rangers to keep an eye on the Christmas trees in the county forest. One presumes it must have been a wide-spread tradition even then if the trees had to be protected from poaching. Other Sélestat’s municipal documents from the 16thcentury provide instructions on how to decorate the tree.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to these when we took on the task last night. Our delightful and endlessly generous host, had let us know there was a bunch of decorations in the attic, just above the children’s bedroom, that we were welcome to use. So last night, Silas, Delphine and I headed up to their bedroom. And sure enough, cut into the roof I spied a rectangular shape. Hopping up onto Delphine’s bed, I gingerly pulled down the little trap-door. It was heavy. Neatly stacked inside the reverse side of the door was a ladder. At a gentle pull, the ladder concertinaed down into a set of stairs. I made my way heavenward and peered into the small space. Old toys, electrical appliances, excess linen, … and two boxes that looked suspiciously like they might contain Christmas decorations.
I handed them down to Silas, jiggling with excitement below me on the floor. Yes! One box full of tinsel (or as Silas says, guirlandes – I haven’t the heart to tell him that’s not the word we use in English) and one box full of memories. A treasure trove of decorations, which from their diversity in age, type and shape, have clearly been gathered together over years of family Christmases. How strange, yet oddly delightful, to open a box of someone else’s family memories.
Feeling nostalgic, I turned to my own memories of Christmases past and hit the play button on the wistful tunes of John Rutter’s carols. Then, accompanied by the Cambridge Choir, we began to wind the guirlandes around the tree. With the tricky bit completed en famille, I stepped back to leave the way clear for Delphine and Silas to hang the decorations while I wandered into the kitchen. Chilling in the fridge was a bottle of Crémant, the local sparkling wine – like us, here in Alsace, they can’t call it Champagne.
I poured myself a glass and went back into the living room to watch my children decorating our picture-perfect tree. I raised my glass in silent praise. It was time to toast our first French Christmas.