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Why I Always Put My Christmas Tree Up In November.

Finding light during dark times..

In September 2011 I’d been living in bed and breakfast accommodation for almost a year after registering as homeless. That month, a few weeks after my birthday, the letter I’d been waiting for arrived: I’d be moved out of the B&B and into temporary accommodation. This is housing provided by the council until a council house becomes available. It’s also known as a ‘scatter flat’.

The day I moved into my new flat was also the first time I got to see it. I was accompanied by my homeless officer and carried a suitcase and a few carrier bags containing all my worldly goods. The flat was in an area of my home town adjacent to my old high-school called ‘Abbeyview’ — dubbed ‘scabby-view’ by certain students who derided any kind of social housing as well as the people who lived in it.

The first thing I noticed when I went inside was how blue it was. The carpet; the curtains; the battered old sofa and deflated armchair were all the same dark, oppressive blue. In this sparsely furnished room only the walls weren’t blue. I guessed at some point they must have been white, though over time they’d developed the rotting yellow veneer of nicotine. Later, I would attempt to sponge the grime from the walls -a gruesome task that ought to be avoided by anyone with a sensitive gag reflex.

The never-ending blue, aided by the smell of decay and neglect, matched my mood. This and the fact that the flat was bone-chillingly cold. The council had kindly put £5 in both the heating and electric meters. And so once the homeless officer had left I cautiously turned on the heating — only in the living room though, as I had to make it last.

That first night, a friend from school I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years came to visit. She brought with her three bulging bags of provisions: milk; toilet roll; bread; chicken nuggets; bleach. Thinking of that unexpected act of kindness even now brings a lump to my throat. She commented on how spooky the threadbare little flat was and admitted that she couldn’t live somewhere like this. I’d only been there for a few hours and the creeping gloom that was engulfing me made me doubt whether I could either.

Our surroundings have an impact on our general mood and sense of wellbeing. As I adjusted to life in my scatter flat I could feel both of them plunge. Daytime was the worst. The harsh light illuminated the peeling paint and the dubious stains that even the dark blue of the sofa couldn’t hide. Night was better. I’d close the curtains and enkindle dozens of tea-lights; quickly discovering that the flickering warmth of candlelight somewhat softened the harsh reality of my surroundings.

As the months passed I scrubbed and bleached in a futile attempt to make the place look less grim. I was trapped inside my own head, often forgoing food in order to be able to afford the cheap cider I thought I needed to blot out the unholy mess my life had turned into. My homeless officer dropped in unannounced regularly to check I was indeed sleeping there each night and also to make sure I hadn’t got a job. To have done so would have made me liable for the inflated temporary accommodation rent costs.

The arrival of November saw me in a charity shop looking for adornments that would make the scatter flat more liveable. A pile of donated gifts lay on the counter deposited by some kind soul and waiting to be sorted. Among them was a four-foot, fibre-optic Christmas tree. I bought it.

I started to look through a box of decorations, asking the price of each and mentally calculating if I could afford them. As I did so I also found myself trying to deduce the extent to which they might eat into my heating and cider fund. I duly bought some from an assistant who then insisted on giving me more for free. They were mismatched, shiny baubles and foil garlands that she said she’d struggle to sell anyway.

When I got home I tumbled these treasures onto the dirty carpet and began to decorate. The finished job couldn’t be described as chic or stylish, but it was still cheerful and festive. That night when I closed the curtains and lit my candles, I also turned on the lights of the tree now nestling in the corner. And as I switched on a string of fairy lights that I’d draped across the window sill,I felt soothed and comforted by the twinkle and colour.

By the following Christmas I was thankfully out of temporary accommodation. I was living with a wonderful man I’d met — a man who would later became the father to my equally wonderful daughter. My circumstances had drastically improved yet still I insisted we put up the tree almost as soon as Bonfire Night had passed.

Some people are wont to sneer at the brightly-lit displays of outdoor Christmas decorations, particularly when they adorn social accommodation. They scoff at the neon glow of plastic snowmen and the flashing garishness of ‘Santa Stop Here’ signs and more so if they consider that they have gone up too early. At Christmas we adhere to an unwritten ledger of taste, timing and tradition. We extend this to perfectionist ideals about gift-wrapping and table placement: everything must be done ‘just so’.

This year my tree is a six-foot pine spruce.; an artificial one to save the soft pads of my toddler’s feet from prickling needles. The baubles are colour-coordinated; and some are salt-dough creations I made with my daughter. I’ve cross-stitched a few myself, an indulgent and leisurely pastime on which I’ve found it’s far easier to while away some hours when you’re not fretting about the food lasting for the week. It will sit at my bay-window, looking out onto my quiet, safe street full of lovely neighbours. It will be illuminated all month long as I won’t need to worry about the electricity running out.

Its joyful twinkling will be an addition to my home; not a distraction from it. Throughout December a growing pile of presents will no doubt appear for my daughter. Though I tell people she doesn’t want for anything and not to go overboard; they will anyway. I don’t say it to be mean, but because I don’t want her to associate Christmas with a groaning pile of unnecessary stuff.

I’ll put it up in November, as has become my tradition; albeit a little later in the month than I have done in previous years. For me the Christmas tree is a reminder that there is beauty to be found in the even the bleakest of experiences. It is an acknowledgement that light will always overcome darkness.