Michael Harding: I drenched the garden with vulgar Christmas light

A red rope of light here, a cluster of dots there. It is garish and I love it like a child

I went to town one day to buy Christmas decorations, because I finally decided to drench the garden with all that cheap vulgar light I had been resisting for years.

In my Christmas childhood, quiet paper decorations hung from the ceiling in demure curves, like Tibetan prayer flags, lagging from the four corners towards the central lampshade of fogged glass in the living room. And outside the world was dark apart from a candle flickering in every window as we made our way into town for midnight Mass.

My mother’s abhorrence of waste ensured that the decorations lasted my entire childhood, and the tree itself was lit year after year by the same string of bulbs; dainty shades as small as egg cups and as delicate as egg shells. Half of them were broken, but an electrician was consulted in early December to ensure that at least some lights would work on Christmas Eve.

When the first LED lights twinkled like snowflakes on my mother’s tree just one year after my father died, I was enormously sad at the loss of our old-fashioned Christmas bulbs. Although over time I grew to admire the digital inventiveness built into Christmas decorations, which nowadays permits places like Mullingar to sparkle in the dark. And I love walking the frozen pavements of Warsaw in December when gigantic gift-wrapped boxes and reindeers bigger than horses are strewn about the pavements, all formed in flashing dots of coloured light.

I still sometimes mourn the loss of my childhood Christmas when everything was imagined in darkness; Santa silently treading along the roof tiles, Mother Mary and her infant hiding in a straw manger beneath the breath of donkeys; and stars of course, stars on every drumlin around Cavan town.

Pure darkness

Nowadays, urban gardens are awash with reindeers, elves and characters from Roald Dahl, and while an orchestra of flashing colours outside the window has its merits, the velvet sensation of pure darkness has completely gone, and light no longer feels like something fragile or impermanent.

This year I found myself packing the Corolla with boxes of battery-driven decorations in the half-light of a shopping centre car park, wondering what they would look like hanging from the trees.

Covid is a darkness in which a light is desperately needed

There was no meaning or method in my arrangement of them later; I simply scattered everything on random branches. I strung a long, red rope of light across the bones of a bare ash tree, and wound a soft amber cluster of dots around a maple. I positioned three projectors on the grass to shine laser red dots on beech trees in the woodland. And finally I plastered the wall of the house with a dappled light that mimicked the fall of snow, and I drenched the hedge with Santa hats. It was gaudy and garish and vulgar, and I loved it like a child.

That evening the temperature in Leitrim went down to -2 and the sky was so clear and the ground so frosty that it felt like I was in Warsaw once again. When I was finished I pulled off my wellies at the door and sat by the stove with a glass of Drumshanbo whiskey, marvelling at the loudness of the light.

Window candle

But then a phone rang and the beloved picked up, and though it wasn’t a long call I knew when she closed her phone that something had changed. A friend was in distress, because her children in London had decided not to travel home for the holiday. They didn’t want to put their mother in danger.

Until that moment I hadn’t considered how many people over 65 would find themselves alone on Christmas Eve, cut off from their children because of Covid-19. For a moment I felt defeated. As if all the food and wine and merry feasting of Christmas would be meaningless if we had not a family to share it with.

But when I looked at the garden again, the garish lights had changed. Suddenly I read in their gaudy luminosity the same metaphor as sang out from the candle that once stood in the window of every country house long ago, when emigration deprived so many mothers of a Christmas hug.

Covid is a darkness in which a light is desperately needed. And for one brief moment I recognised in the garden decorations, in all their digital crudity, a symbol of a fragile light that shines in darkness; a fragile love that no disease or winter frost or even death itself can quench.