Keeping up appearances
Sunday October 8, 2006Anthea Rowan
Finding the perfect Christmas tree is a challenge anywhere in the world: it?s got to be exactly the right height (so assorted family members can all reach to decorate it, or not reach at all, depending on whether or not they?re liable to try and tug all the baubles off and bring the whole thing crashing to the floor). It?s got to be the right shape ? you want it to be perfectly proportioned so that it doesn?t look all squiffy (well, not until you?ve at least begun to enjoy some Christmas spirit) and you want it to be perfectly fresh and deeply ever(lastingly)green; no good having a tree that?s frantically shedding needles and turning brown on Christmas eve.
But finding the perfect Christmas tree in Africa is somewhat more challenging. For a start, there are no European fir plantations to hand. It is possible to buy a branch illegally lopped off a Cyprus tree from one of the entrepreneurs who have sprung up on the roadside. These opportunists know a good thing when they see it: white women hell-bent on simulating the perfect White Christmas despite the fact they?re several thousand miles from the Northern Hemisphere in temperatures in the mid 30s. It?s a good idea to cash in on what they perceive, in an essentially Muslim country, as a European eccentricity: cutting a perfectly good tree down only to decorate it rather than chop it up for firewood. But they haven?t quite got the window dressing right: the trees don?t really resemble their European counterparts, all glitzy with tinsel and fairy lights. No. These are propped up in Kimbo tins and have been hastily adorned with trailing purple loo paper.
Consequently I ? and more importantly, my children ? don?t find them terribly appealing. Instead we resort to sourcing our own tree. And after 15 years of being obliged to do so (because as a mother you are always obliged to do so, even if you live in the Sahara and the only tree around is the date palm) I have become quite adept at it. When the children were tiny, we used to decorate the branch of a thorny acacia: the perfect you-can-look-but-don?t-touch arrangement. Fragile glass balls and potentially dangerous fairy lights were safely out of reach. Or rather, within reach but after one grab, they learned not to try again.
Last year I foolishly decided we?d have a palm. Not the one we sit under in the Sahara because we don?t actually live in the Sahara, that was simply my analogy to point out children?s bloody-mindedness about Christmas trees. Rather the one that had died and fallen over in the garden after it was flattened by a collapsing power line. It was still green. And it looked the perfect size lying on the lawn. It was, I discovered, quite a lot larger than I thought once I?d got it inside. We planted it in a bucket, weighted with rocks, and my son noted ? just in case his mother was so stupid she hadn?t already made the observation herself ? that it really did look a great deal bigger inside than out.
We decorated it. And then it fell over. Amelia decided the decorations were inadequate and began to weigh one side down with all the jewellery she owns, some of not insignificant weight, being made of ceramic. In order to prevent it toppling again we secured it to the beams and the sideboard behind (which began to slide ever so slightly across the floor). To no avail, it fell over again. So we chucked it out: if you?re not up to the job, that?s that I?m afraid.
Tree Mk II was a branch hacked from a big fig behind the house. It was more modest in size (didn?t poke your eyes out every time you walked from the sitting room to the kitchen, nor did it threaten to pull the house down or drag the furniture across the floor). We decorated it on Sunday evening. It looked lovely. Until Monday when it looked like a branch festooned with a few decorations and a lot of popodoms; the leaves were parched and crisp and shedding fast. The children looked woebegone.
Fed up I went for a long walk and discovered at the far end of the farm some glorious weeds: tall enough for stars and angels at the top without being too tall to decorate, light so it wasn?t in danger of becoming desiccated (so it wouldn?t dry further and look like remnants of Indian takeaway). I uprooted it and dragged it home. As I mentioned, it wasn?t heavy, but 30 minutes later it had gained weight. I got it home and showed if off delightedly to the family and told them they must love me for it as I?d dragged it, on my own, sweating buckets, from miles away. ?But Mum,' said Amelia, ?there?s a whole load of those weeds outside the garden fence.? Mk II was tossed out and my weeds, supplemented with some of Amelia?s, were put in the long-suffering bucket and we decorated for the third time in three days.
I poured myself a large celebratory drink. And I bought the kids extra fairy lights to make up for subjecting them to so much decorating (I almost succeeded in putting them off Christmas trees for good, but sadly not quite). The ?treeweeds? looked lovely: sort of boho chic. I crossed my fingers that it wouldn?t catch fire with all that electricity surging around kindling-dry branches. And it didn?t.
Thankfully the farm has produced a proliferation of similar weeds this year and I know just where to find them: right outside the garden fence.