Bryson's America: Own up: who's seen the Christmas decorations?

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The Independent Culture
WHEN I left you last week I was expressing a certain queasy foreboding at the thought that at any moment my wife would step into the room and announce that the time has come to get out the Christmas decorations.

Well, here we are, another week gone and just 18 fleeting days till Christmas, and still not a peep from her. I don't know how much more of this I can take.

I hate doing the Christmas decorations because, for a start, it means going up into the loft. Lofts are dirty, dark, disagreeable places. You always find things up there you don't want to find - lengths of gnawed wiring, gaps in the slates through which you can see daylight and sometimes even pop your head, and crates full of useless oddments that you must have been out of your mind ever to have hauled up there. Three things alone are certain when you venture into a loft: that you will crack your head on a beam at least twice, that you will get cobwebs draped over your face, and that you will not find what you went looking for.

So you lower your legs through the hatch and blindly grope for the ladder with your feet. If you stretch your right leg to its furthest extremity, you can just about get a toe to it, which is not much good, of course. Eventually, you discover that if you swing your legs back and forth, like a gymnast on parallel bars, you can get one foot on top of the ladder and then both feet on. This, however, does not represent a great breakthrough because you are now lying at an angle of about 60 degrees and unable to make any further progress. Grunting softly, you try to drag the ladder nearer with your feet, but succeed only in knocking it over, with a crash.

Now you really are stuck. You try to wriggle back up into the loft, but haven't the strength, so you hang by your armpits. You call to your wife, but she doesn't hear you. This is both discouraging and strange. Normally, your wife can hear things that no one else on earth can hear. She can hear a dab of jam fall on to a carpet two rooms away. She can hear spilled coffee being furtively mopped up with a good bathtowel. She can hear dirt being tracked across a clean floor. She can hear you just thinking about doing something you shouldn't do. But get yourself stuck in a loft hatch and suddenly it is as if she has been placed in a soundproof chamber.

So when eventually, an hour or so later, she passes through the upstairs hallway and sees your legs dangling there, it takes her by surprise. "What are you doing?" she says at length.

You squint down at her. "Loft hatch aerobics," you reply with just a hint of sarcasm.

"Do you want the ladder?'

"Oh, now there's an idea. Do you know, I've been hanging here for ages trying to think what it is that's missing, and here you've cracked it straight off.'

You hear the sound of the ladder being righted and feel your feet being guided down the steps. The hanging has evidently done you good because suddenly you remember that the Christmas decorations are not in the loft - never were in the loft - but in the basement, in a cardboard box. Of course! How silly not to have recalled! Off you dash.

Two hours later you find the decorations hidden behind some old tyres and a broken pram. You lug the box upstairs and devote two hours more to untangling strings of lights. When you plug the lights in, naturally they do not work, except for one string that hurls you backwards into a wall with a lively jolt and a shower of sparks, and then does not work.

You decide to leave the lights and get the tree in from the garage. The tree is immense and prickly. Clutching it in a clumsy bearhug, you gruntingly manhandle it to the back door, fall into the house, get up and press on. As branches poke your eyes, needles puncture your cheeks and gums, and sap manages somehow to run backwards up your nose, you blunder through rooms, knocking pictures from walls, clearing tabletops, upsetting chairs. Your wife, so recently missing and unaccounted for, now seems to be everywhere, shouting confused and lively instructions - "Mind the thingy! Don't go that way - to that way! To the left! Not your left - my left!" and eventually, in a softer voice, "Oooh, are you all right honey? Didn't you see those steps?" By the time you reach the living room the tree looks as if it has been defoliated by acid rain, and so do you.

It is at this point that you realise that you have no idea where the Christmas tree stand is. So, sighing, you hike up to town to the hardware store to buy another, knowing that for the next three weeks all the Christmas tree stands you have ever purchased - 23 in all - will spontaneously reappear in your life, mostly by dropping on to your head from a high shelf when you are rooting in the bottom of a cupboard, but occasionally in the middle of darkened rooms or lurking near the top of the hall stairs. If you don't know it already, know it now: Christmas tree stands are the work of the devil and they want you dead. While you are at the hardware store you buy two additional strings of lights. These will not work either.

Eventually, exhausted in both mind and body, you manage to get the tree up, lit and covered with baubles. You stand in the posture of Quasimodo regarding it with a kind of weak loathing.

"Oh, it's lovely!" your wife cries, clasping her hands ecstatically beneath her chin. "Now let's do the outside decorations," she announces suddenly. "I bought a special treat this year - a life-sized Father Christmas that goes on the chimney. You fetch the 40-ft ladder and I'll open the crate. Oh, isn't this such fun!" And off she skips.

Now you might reasonably say to me: "Why put yourself through all this? Why go up to the loft when you know the decorations won't be there? Why untangle the lights when you know they haven't a chance of working?" And my answer to you is that this is part of the ritual. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without it.

Which is why I've decided to make a start now even though Mrs Bryson hasn't ordered me to. There are some things you just have to do in life, whether you want to or not.

If you need me for anything, I'll be hanging from the loft.

Extracted from `Notes from a Big Country', published by Doubleday. price pounds 16.99. Available at bookshops and by mail order from 01624 675137.