O Tannenbaum

It would be a hard thing not to have noticed, but all across this town in recent times there has been a large broom at work, sweeping away houses, gardens and the detritus of old lives, leaving behind open blocks like missing teeth in a landscape ready for new building. Driven partly by Federal Government policy aimed at encouraging foreign investment in the local building industry, the broom has even been seen in the streets of Yallambie where occasional houses from the A V Jennings era estate have been cleared away to make room for new homes.

I’ve always wondered at the reasoning behind removing perfectly good houses to build more perfectly good houses. The ultimate expression of life in a disposable world I suppose but it is an idea that is not entirely without precedence in this area. When the original 1840s pre-fabricated buildings at Yallambie were replaced by the current Homestead at the start of the 1870s, the same thinking was behind it. Out with the old and in with the new.

Modern houses inevitably contain many advantages over their predecessors in insulation, sustainability and modern conveniences but perhaps the most surprising innovation I’ve heard about recently is the so called, dedicated “Christmas Tree Room”. By all reports, no home of the 21st century should be without one.

When I was a child, decorating a tree at the start of December with home-made paper chains was a family ritual. It is a ritual however considered by some house designers to be too taxing on the demands of modern day lifestyles. Better to leave the plastic tree decorated from the previous December in a purpose built room, the “Christmas Tree Room”, and wheel it out annually ready to go for Santa’s arrival over our roof tops.

A drop in at Christmas.
A drop in at Christmas.

At our home we don’t have a “Christmas Tree Room”. We don’t have a plastic tree for that matter. We do have an ancient, wonky table top sized, fibre tree that has seen more than seven decades of Christmas ritual of my wife’s family and which is left decorated with its fragile ornament in a cupboard from one year to the next. Is that the same thing?

The wonky Christmas tree.
The wonky Christmas tree.

The Scouts do a roaring trade in trees around Melbourne at this time of the year, but almost every year there seems to have been a self-sown pine or cypress growing somewhere in our garden in quite just the wrong place and demanding removal. The enormous Mexican Cypress (Cupressus lusitanica), mistakenly identified from a distance in one council survey as a Sequoiadendron Giganteum (it really is a big tree) and growing on the Yallambie Park escarpment, keeps seeding our nearby garden beds and most years there has been at least one young tree ready to come inside.

Mexican cypress used as a Christmas tree.
Mexican cypress used as a Christmas tree.

A couple of years ago I brought a particularly tall specimen in from the garden at Christmas and stood it in our bay window where it literally touched the ceiling. I needed a high step ladder to decorate it. Inside that bay window was hanging what was, at that time, a recently installed Italian glass light fitting. It had been reconstructed by us painstakingly from a collection of found pieces and represented a great deal of creative effort.

“Mind that light fitting while you’re up there,” said my wife anxiously watching me reach past the light to get at the top of the tree. “Don’t you think you should remove the glass first?”

They say that one definition of love is never being tempted to use those words, “I told you so,” but it must have been tempting for her all the same as she watched me the next minute step first one way, then the other doing a juggling act on the top most rung of the ladder. In bumping one of the glass feathers of the light and attempting to catch its fall, I managed to knock down two more and to watch all three at the end of my juggling act smash helplessly on the floor. It took me a long time to live down that particularly brilliant effort. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, don’t you know? But could it have happened with the convenience of a pre-decorated tree and an associated “Christmas Tree Room”?

The ritual of the Christmas tree developed as a Christian custom in early modern Germany with possible origins in much earlier pagan traditions. The idea spread beyond Germany in the 19th century, at first within the ruling classes, but with the practice ultimately spreading to summer time Australia from winter time Great Britain after the marriage of Queen Victoria to the German Prince Albert.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family at Christmas
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family at Christmas

Christmas trees were traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts, or other foods and illuminated by candles. The inherent dangers of naked flames in early Christmas trees seem obvious now and if the practice had not been discontinued by the introduction of modern electric lighting, I suspect there might be many more cleared blocks today than has resulted even from that sweeping broom of foreign investment.

Santa at Yallambie.
Santa at Yallambie.

Today there are web sites devoted to the art of how to decorate the perfect Christmas tree. O Tannenbaum comes in a myriad variety of forms and in the endless pursuit of perfection that is life in the modern world, Christmas is in danger of sometimes becoming just another in that list of ceremonial opportunities designed to impress your friends. Rambling gardens, eclectic interiors and wonky Christmas trees are out of fashion. It is the same mind set that has seen that broom all too busy in the suburbs where the collision between established residential communities and the needs of cashed up property developers has seen the wholesale demolition of houses in some quarters, leaving those areas with a confusing patchwork of conflicting architectural styles. Georgian, French Provincial, Rhode Island and Antebellum; just about everything other than “Australian”. Our iconic Federation era style architecture has been just about the biggest casuality in the big clean up. The demolition of the century old Queen Anne style house “Idylwilde” in Toorak made headlines just over a month ago. In this young nation, our heritage is not always appreciated as economics and practicalities take precedence. One wonders at just what will replace it.

Idylwilde in Toorak before and during demolition.
Idylwilde in Toorak before and during demolition.

Meanwhile, on the search for our Christmas tree this year, it is apparent that most of the Mexican Cypress seedlings growing in our garden have been weeded and we don’t have a tree ready to come inside for the first time in a long time. Most of those left are ankle biters. All the same, we do have a scratchy looking Bunya Bunya pine which I’ve been growing in a pot. At least it’s an Australian native. It might not look like much right now but give it a few decorations and that little tree will find itself feeling like Christmas.

Literally.

charlie brown christmas