1988 was our first Christmas at Duddingstone Steps (up 125 steps, down 125 steps). We were flatting together to avoid the domestic squalor of the previous year. Our commitment to this domestic idyll was represented by the purchase of a little grey earthenware teapot with a bird on the side. We used the image of this teapot on our hand drawn poster seeking flatmates and on our numerous party invitations. On the invites, the domestic effect of the hand drawn teapot clashed with our party tag-line, “Dance, drink, fall over”, our limited attempt at the grand party names in The Rules of Attraction which we both read that year.
But now, university was over and Christmas was coming. The carpet was gradually drying out after the full steam clean it earned at my 21st Birthday Party. We were going to make the place look like home for Christmas. We were going to have a Christmas tree.
We approached this domestic moment in the same way we organised parties. We started talking about how we would decorate.
Benk wanted to do decorations inspired by her Nicola Jackson. It was round and involved a horoscope and stars like the one below:
But it also had papier mâché snakes and other creatures like this one (the snakes on Benk’s Nicola Jackson protruded from the frame a bit more):
I agreed to do papier mâché because Benk said it would be easy and after all she had done 6th form art. And I had a strong opinion that we should make fruits and we should also hang biscuits from the tree. My view was that a proper Christmas tree should look like the Christmas trees Maurice Sendak drew for The Nutcracker.
At some time in the past year I had acquired a copy of The Nutcracker, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, It was the most beautiful book I owned. I had been looking for In The Night Kitchen, in which everything was good enough to eat for years, but it was impossible to obtain because it was usually banned.
I fell in love with The Nutcracker instead. Everything on Sendak’s Christmas trees looked good enough to eat. But the thing I liked most about Sendak’s Christmas trees was what I saw as the “lack of a stylistic theme”. No strict colour scheme (apart from the natural limits of paintings with ink) and lots of different types of decorations: pretzels and drums; harps and walnuts filling up all the space. A bountiful cornucopia of a Christmas tree, an echo of the bounty the Ghost of Christmas Present gifts to Scrooge.
Despite Benk’s artistic skills, we were not as good at papier mâché as Nicola Jackson. We remembered the basic principles from primary school but I think we used too many layers and the flour and paste took forever to dry. We had to use the heater to dry the fruits. It was not a good smell. Those fruits that dried without loosing their shape had a rough grainy texture and odd surface gaps where the strips of paper were pulling way from the base. Paint made them more cheerful, but they certainly weren’t as vivid as a Nicola Jackson or as these excellent fruits by Design Sponge.
Our 1988 Christmas tree didn’t really look like a Nicola Jackson but we made up for it by filling all the potential space with biscuits, tinsel and paper chains until the tree had a little of the plenitude that I found in Maurice Sendak. We threw out the papier mâché baubles with the tree but I kept faith with my ideal of a “Maurice Sendak Christmas tree” as I collected decorations and improved biscuit recipes over the next two decades. Until I met someone else who loved to organise parties and began by planning the decorations and who had different ideas of how a Christmas tree should be.