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2005-12-20 An international tree reveals the true message of Christmas

It was 11 o'clock on Christmas Eve. A white-washed Ballincar bungalow was swathed in moonlight. Outside, the air was crisp and clean. A never-ending starcloth, black with twinkling pinpoints, was suspended from the heavens.

 

Inside, the cosy home was still, the only sound the rhythmical contented snore of Rua, the family's red setter, who had sneaked his way from the hearth rug to the sofa soon after the family had retired to bed. The children had, of course, been sound asleep for hours, awaiting the arrival of Mr Claus, with his generous goodie-bag.

 

A glass of whiskey, a satsuma, and a carrot sat by the Poinsettia on the hall table. Mum and Dad were also by now slipping into a deep sleep. The road was relatively unbusy, apart from a handful of cars making their way to Midnight mass at the Point.

 

In one corner of the sitting room stood an elegant Scotch pine, lovingly and tastefully decorated. The children had been told several versions of "the origin of the Christmas tree", by their teachers at Carbury. One night, on his way home, Martin Luther - the German reformist - had been awe-struck by a snow-sprinkled carpet of conifers beneath a starlit heaven, so much so that he brought home a tree - a Christmas Tree - and rested some candles on its branches, to represent those stars, as well as announcing the birth of the Baby Jesus. Another teacher had spoken of an angel at the Bethlehem nativity, who had taken pity on a tiny fir-tree, and had commanded a star cluster to rest on its boughs. And so, the Christmas lights on this magical evergreen, just off the Rosses Point Road, like all Christmas trees worldwide, symbolised the lights of Spring triumphing over the darkness of Winter.

 

This fragrant Scotch pine, with its German links, was indeed a truly international tree. Aside from the usual baubles, bells and tinsel, there were fairy lights which had been made in China, and a kaleidoscopic mix of Christmas decorations from every corner of the globe. Dad travelled lots with his work, promising to bring back a tree decoration from every country he had visited. Dad had always believed that Christmas was a time for all nations to put aside their differences and to come together in harmony, just like on the family Christmas tree.

 

Only a few weeks before, the decorations had been taken down from the attic, in their biscuit tin, dusted, cleaned and suspended with care from the conifer boughs. A red paper Thai lantern, spotlit by a fairy light, had been purchased at a sea-front souvenir shop in Thailand's Patong Beach, months before the catastrophic tsunami had devestated the area, and that souvenir shop. A pretty hand-painted doll from Estonia stood out near the top of the tree, proud in her bright national costume.

 

At the bottom of the tree, Consuela, a Spanish Flamenco dancer, longed for her native Andalusia, and to say goodbye to the cold wet Irish climate. Eleven months in a biscuit-tin - she was not even a Christmas ornament, and had been bought by accident. She shouldn't even be here, and if she had to be here, she should be much nearer the top of the tree, where she could be seen by all. A multi-coloured straw sombrero from Acapulco in Mexico seemed equally out of place on the Christmas tree.

 

The generous warm smile of the bright red wooden Santa from Sweden was a little misleading - he was bored with the children pulling his string every time they passed the tree, making his feet kick his ears. A red-nosed Russian reindeer, with plastic antlers, had been brought to Sligo following a recent business trip to St Petersburg. A pair of shiny blue and white porcelain Dutch clogs dangled from a high branch.

 

An American snowman from New York had been itching to escape from the cookie-tin since early November. Christmas was a much more lavish and serious deal in the USA. But the rest of the ornaments, and the elegant Scotch pine, were by now a little fed up hearing about New York's 5th Avenue stores, the ice-rink on Central Park, and that giant tree at the Rockerfeller Center. The USA is five hours behind Ireland, so the American snowman had almost six hours of Christmas Eve left - in his mind.

 

Stefan, the Swiss soldier, spoke romantically of the snow-covered Alps, and painted the picture-perfect Christmas, describing winter in Switzerland as God's giant Christmas cake. But the other ornaments teased Stefan, especially Consuela the Flamenco dancer, who said that everyone knew Switzerland was a neutral country, and never went to war anyway. A Swiss soldier was simply silly she said. Stefan shuddered at the thought of conflict.

 

A Tahitian shell glinted half-way up the tree - if you listened closely you could hear the sound of the Pacific in Sligo, and smell the scent of orchids and salty sea-air. A snow-white Argentinian angel with a gold halo travelled all the way from the world's southermost point - Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego.

 

A tiny kiwi bird with a green tinsel necklace had started its long journey in the New Zealand city of Auckland - not bad for a flightless bird. A Canadian Moose from downtown Toronto smiled smugly at the Russian reindeer, whose miniscule antlers paled by comparison. The Russian reindeer jealously juddered. By now the Swedish Santa had begun to whisper "Happy Christmas" to everyone, as it was already Christmas Day in Stockholm.

 

This infuriated the American snowman who had over five hours to go until his Christmas. He stretched across, pulled Santa's string, forcing Santa to kick his own ears, again. The evergreen branches bristled. The little red Thai lantern swayed, its personal spotlight pressing against its thin paper surface. At the bottom of the tree, Consuela glared upwards through the branches at the pretty Estonian doll, and the snow-white Argentinian angel. It was also, by now, Christmas in Andalusia, and Consuela was desperate to unhook herself and move higher in the tree. Once again, the tree trembled. Rua, the red setter, stirred on the sofa. The fairy light below the Thai lantern had begun to turn the red paper to brown. The Thai lantern swayed helplessly.

 

Stefan, the Swiss soldier, sniggered at Consuela's futile attempts to move higher. With a straight face, and a mock-concerned voice, Consuela asked Stefan if he had heard on the news earlier about Switzerland declaring war on the rest of the world. The scared Swiss soldier shivered at the very notion of armed combat.

It was almost Christmas, but there was a definite lack of goodwill between the nations on the tree. The tree quivered again. Rua growled.

 

Suddenly, all eyes were focussed on the little red paper Thai lantern who by now was smouldering steadily. The American snowman was overheating too. The decorations called a ceasefire, and stopped their arguments. The decorations were collectively panicking, shaking the Scotch pine in unison, so much so that the commotion set off the large golden German star at the top of the tree, which broke into its soothing rendition of "Silent Night". Rua growled, then barked, and moved nervously to the tree. Dad sat up in bed with a jolt, came in to investigate, immediately smelt the burning, and plugged out the fairylights, which he had meant to do before going to bed.

 

The newly two-toned Thai lantern cooled down, settling back into a gentle sway. "Good boy Rua, well done boy - we could have had a nasty accident there", said dad, gesturing to the red setter to spend the rest of the night on the sofa as a treat. Dad checked the lights again, and returned to bed. The Christmas decorations realised their arguments had been pointless, and had nearly cost them dearly. The house was silent once more.

 

Moments later, just before midnight, Santa arrived at the bungalow in Ballincar. As he was depositing the presents under the Scotch pine, he looked up, and realised, because of his extensive travel , that this was indeed a truly international tree. "Estonia, the USA, Sweden, the Netherlands, Russia, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Tahiti, Thailand and what's this at the bottom?", he thought, "a Spanish Flamenco dancer, how original!".

 

He lifted Consuela carefully off her lower branch and placed her high on the tree between the Estonian doll and the Argentinian angel. "Aren't you a pretty lady?", he whispered, "now everyone can see just how pretty you are my dear. "What an international Christmas tree - the true message of Christmas".

 

Santa's heart was warmed, as he head back towards Sligo. The little Ballincar bungalow was once again still. It was midnight. Christmas had arrived.