Pretty, pretty Christmas baubles

When I was a boy living in Scone, in country NSW we still had a traditional Christmas along the lines of that which my parents had had growing up in England. This meant two things: firstly, that we sat around at midday on Christmas Day in sweltering heat (we had no air conditioning, see below) and ate a mid-winter feast of roast poultry followed by a traditional pudding and fruit mince pies; and secondly, that due to the post-war austerity that my parents had lived through, combined with the carefulness of my Yorkshireman father, we did nothing else that was extravagant.

We received a pile of parcels from England (from a wealth of grandparents and Great Aunts that I could not remember). In those days, before padded envelopes, the parcels were carefully wrapped in brown wrapping paper and tied up with string to keep everything together. Not being allowed to waste anything we were not to cut the string but had to carefully untie all the knots so that the string could be saved (after Christmas it was put in a drawer where it became a tangled mess along with the accumulated rubber bands and other things that were not wasted).

The untying was incredibly slow as the knots were intricate and I still remember having to pass the packages on to mum or dad to finish (my father, fearful of waste but not a man of infinite patience, would inevitably have the scissors fetched). Neither were we allowed to rip the brown paper or the Christmas paper having instead to painstakingly try to remove the sticky tape without damaging the paper so that it could be reused (this was virtually impossible, but to this day I am still determined to try).

My parents were not miserly with gift giving nor the food. Although, ostensibly to save money, we kept our own geese, two of which had to be slaughtered and plucked on Christmas Eve. The plucking seemed to always fall to me.

However, Christmas decoration was very much a do-it-yourself affair. We would head out of town in early December to cut down a small pine tree growing by the side of the road at Owens Gap, the way out of the valley to Merriwa. I am not sure it was entirely legal, and certainly by the furtive way my father behaved, he was not convinced either. The tree was usually small and not very bushy but it was certainly cheap. At home we would prop the tree up in a bucket full of stones, which was not very satisfactory, until I convinced my father to help me fabricate a stand from some of his scrap wood (another precious commodity).

We were allowed to buy tinsel but the rest of the Christmas tree decorations were nearly all things that me and my brother and sister had made at school. Now while this has some charm to it, many of these little curios were getting well past their use-by-dates when we had all left home.

But one Christmas we bought some baubles and this seemed to me like the ultimate in decadence. They were a mixture of red and gold balls, and all were delicate and shiny. Compared to the yellowing paper decorations held together with Perkins Paste and sticky tape, they seemed like magnificent treasure from the Orient, something worthy of the Magi taking to Jesus. Every now and then one would fall off the tree and smash revealing the egg-shell like glass they were made from and upsetting me as it seemed that our Christmas tree treasure was slowly diminishing.

And it is not just me that loves baubles. Bauble has moved beyond its original and very old meaning as a showy trinket or ornament to be a legitimate and noble Christmas  decoration. The word comes from the Norman French baubel for a child’s toy or a trinket. It is likely to have come from a “reduplication” of bel from the Latin word, bellus, meaning pretty. Reduplication (sometimes even called “lexical cloning” which sounds very-very scientific) is used in language for emphasis (and sometimes for humour) and is common in English with examples including: helter-skelter; razzle-dazzle; zig-zag; and bye-bye.

So what we really have with bauble is the French word belle, meaning pretty (as well as beautiful or nice) reduplicated as belle-belle, which would translate as pretty-pretty. That I am quite delighted by.