Recently I read of ‘Tree Dressing Day’ which happens to be tomorrow, December 4th. It is a day which occurs on the first weekend of December and was started by the organisation Common Ground in 1990. Its origins are in diverse ancient and cultural traditions where trees are used to act as markers of memory not least for those who we grieve for. As the originators of the idea of Tree Dressing Day remind us, trees have long been celebrated for their spiritual significance. Indeed, close to home there is an old Scottish and Celtic tradition where folks tied strips of cloth to a tree in memory of someone who had died and I remember from my childhood seeing such trees, often in isolated places, dressed as markers of memory on Skye. More recently, near to where I live there is a woodland with a ‘Fairy Walk’ where as well as objects to stimulate childhood imagination people have started to hang on a large old tree strips of cloth in memory of a child, partner or friend who has died. Dressing a tree in memory of the lost is timeless and ancient and happens across not just western, but also Buddhist and Hindu cultures.
I was thinking of this sense of ‘tree dressing’ yesterday evening as after no small amount of bullying I put up our Christmas tree – it’s not that I dislike the tree because like so many I feel it’s presence chases the darkness at a time of year which is all too cold and frozen – it’s just that every year there seems to be more to put up and decide what’s to stay and what’s not. It is also a process which conjures memory and association both because of decorations which were gifts from those no longer alive or which are conjurers of memory and association. Dressing a Christmas tree is a walk down a path of memory and usually that is a joyful experience but sometimes it is tinged with sadness.
As I dressed the tree last night, placing trinkets of touch and carriers of story on the branches I could not help but also recall that we have just started Grief Awareness Week. It is a week which has numerous aims including ‘to raise awareness of all aspects of grief and loss on a national scale; and to open conversations and normalise grief.’
I am glad that Grief Awareness Week occurs at this time of year because from experience this is a really hard time of the year for those who are mourning and who are grieving. It is a time when the world is busy and focussed on celebration, where the air is filled with happiness, where folks are out to have a good time. It sits uncomfortably then to feel the ache of aloneness and emptiness which is the companion of grief; it feels as if you are spoiling life for others to be the constant reminder of someone not present, and on Christmas Day especially it is so hard to not let others down, so you end up cradling your grief in silence, sitting apart with loss at your side.
I know too many who these days and weeks will look for someone who is no longer going to be lying beside them in the morning; who will strain to hear the echoing of a voice now silent in death; who will put on a brave face for children who are learning the life-long lesson of an absent mother or father. I know too many who will look into the eyes of a husband who no longer knows their name and barely recognises their presence, those who are capturing every second of presence as the sands of time inexorably run through towards parting.
This is a hard time. So as I decorate a tree for celebration, I am also marking the lives of those whose living has been my loving and who are with me in memory and heart, knowing that not just at Christmas but every day I need to find the strength to tell their story, recall their face, and walk in the paths of grieving. I hope I also will not just in the coming week but throughout this month be sensitive to those for whom nothing can bring them warmth such is the coldness of their grief and I hope to give them the space of deep listening, the silence of simply being present, and the insight of a touch that shows solidarity.
The great Scottish poet Liz Lochhead sums up the contradiction of the Christmas tree in her poem ‘How I’ll Decorate My Tree.’
It was still very far from Christmas
When my momma said to me:
Tell me, Precious, what you going to hang
On our Christmas tree?
I said: the fairy-lights that Dad just fixed!
And… jewel-coloured jelly-beans from the pick’n’mix –
Oh, and from it I’ll dangle tinsel in tangles,
Sparkles, sequins and spangles,
A round golden coin (chocolate money),
That cracker joke that was actually funny.
My rosary beads – and a plastic rose
As red as Rudolph Reindeer’s nose,
The gnome that grows the tangerines,
The picture of me with my tambourine,
And (Mum’s favourite, she says)
The photo of all of us in our PJ’s –
The Ladybird Book that Lola lent me,
The blue butterfly bracelet that Brittany sent me,
The ear-ring I lost,
A pop-up Jack Frost,
A space-hopper, an everlasting gobstopper,
A pink-eyed sugar mouse,
The keys to my Grandfather’s house,
A tiny pair of trainers with silver laces,
And – now my smile is straight – gonna hang up my braces!
A marble, an angel-scrap, a star,
The very last sweetie out my Advent Calendar,
A kiss under the mistletoe,
A mitten still cracked with a crunch and a creak of snow,
That glitter scarf I finally got sick of,
A spoon with cake-mix still to lick off,
The Dove of Peace that our Darren made,
Some green thoughts in our tree’s green shade –
I’ll hang every evergreen memory
Of moments as melted and gone
As that candle that was supposed to smell
Of cinnamon –
Memories big as a house and as small ’s
The baubles I used to call ball-balls.
With pleasure I’ll treasure them
Then, on proper Christmas Day, I’ll show them all to you
Between the Queen’s Speech and Doctor Who!