And so, it seems, despite only just having lit the Advent candle, we’ve already left it too late to buy the tree. The Buying of the Tree has been a solemn ceremony for several years. Ever since child 2 was two years old, she and James have departed for the Christmas Tree Farm with strict instructions to keep it to six feet and get the bottom sliced off before bringing it home. They return with an eight footer that’ll be dead in a week if the bottom’s not sliced off (the sap hardens quickly and clogs the xylem that draw up the water), so the bottom has to be sliced off before we find out that the top has to go, too, if the tree’s ever to fit inside, by which time the children are bored, I’ve got blisters from wielding our old handsaw and it’s started to rain. It’s tradition.
That two year old is now twelve. Her days are long, she does lots of activities, she’s keeping up with her friends from her old school and trying hard to make friends at her new one, there are only twenty four hours in a day and the farm is only open for a small proportion of them. But it is inconceivable that the tree could be a) be bought anywhere else or b) be bought without her supervision. Her siblings sometimes go along, sometimes not, but not one of them will hear of the tree being bought without her. Week nights are out – the farm is closed before she gets home. She has a residential something or other next weekend, and the weekend after that is FAR TOO LATE MUMMY. And anyway the family room is in complete chaos. We’ve not only had a birthday party, but the 10yo has made a hobbit hole out of a large box and has been doing his homework in it for weeks. I can’t face bringing tree decorations in to add to it.
Just before four o’clock in the afternoon of the first Sunday of Advent, I had one of those rare moments of inspiration that form the basis of heartwarming stories. An idea with the potential to go down in family lore as the Time Mummy Got It Right. A perfect solution to a seemingly intractable problem. With just an hour before her lesson, Child 2 was finally doing her music practice. ‘Look,’ I said to the other children. ‘If we can get this room tidy by the time she’s finished, she and Daddy can go straight to the Christmas tree farm and choose the tree today. And daddy can drop her at her music lesson on the way back.’ They were thrilled and pitched in with a will, putting things away, sorting their games and papers with me playing Mary Poppins. James, although knee deep in a project of his own, was soon on board, and everyone started to get very excited.
Until Child 2 herself, exhausted from her birthday party and sleepover the night before, and the emotional strain of missing her friends (who’ve all gone together to a different school to her), not feeling much like a music lesson anyway, reacted with anger. Go to music with the tree still in the car? What kind of monsters were we? James was horrified by the ingratitude and went back to his project, child 2 collapsed in tears vowing never to speak to anyone ever again, and I realised the tree was not going to happen.
The other children were devastated. Our busy weekend (orchestra, ballet, school fair, Dungeons and Dragons, emergency dash to big Tesco for birthday party supplies due to non-delivery of Hobbycraft order, final performance of school production, The Unicorn Olympics, sleepover, homework, guesting on local community radio) ended with three weeping children, the youngest of which fell asleep sobbing, ‘I hate Christmas! I hate it.’
And I tell this story simply because it’s true. But something else is true, too – that when we get the tree (I don’t know precisely when, darling, but we will, of course we will), and the lights are wound round it, and the faithful old decorations come out, and the carols go on the CD player, this sad Advent Sunday will be part of it. Without love, there’d be no grief; without loneliness, there’d be no friendship; without death, there’d be no life. Around the corner of tomorrow is a joy that depends upon the sadness of today. And maybe – just maybe – if we shared more of the sadness, we’d be better equipped to celebrate the joy.