My last Caribbean Christmas was as a teenager in Trinidad. The memories are not good. If you are the only child of divorced parents, who use you as an emotional football, then Christmas is a particularly high scoring match. My escape to London allowed for a new sense of home and tradition. Twenty-three years later, circumstances have taken me back to the Caribbean – Barbados this time – building new traditions with our young sons.

Home is temporarily a cottage that The Husband lived in till age seven. He recalls playing cricket with his dad in the garden, picnicking on the front lawn and losing four cats, Bunty, numbers one through four, in the surrounding cane fields. The area is now developed and dubbed “the new Bridgetown” so it is not quite the same idyllic setting. Still, he teaches our boys the finer points of bating and bowling in the same garden and we often sit on the front lawn throwing balls for the newly acquired Jack Russell, called, well, Jack.

The Husband’s parents also enjoyed gardening as evidenced by the variety of fruit trees they planted. Each tree has a story. They planted a coconut tree each for their two sons but only my brother-in-law’s tree survives. This is a mystery as The Husband used to “forget” to water his brother’s sapling. My mother-in-law also planted two conifers that we commonly call “Christmas trees”. She recalls waking to find one of the young conifers gone - dug up, roots and all. If I saw a similar conifer nearby she is convinced we could identify the thief. There are three possible offenders but I am reluctant to ask the providence of their 40-some year old trees. Of course The Husband is convinced it is his 65-foot conifer that survives near our front gate and not his sibling’s.

Two weeks before Christmas and we still have no tree. I am unsure of what to do. A real tree, imported from some temperate climate, and fated to die in my hot house, does not seem to be compatible with the season’s spirit of sustainability, peace and harmony. The island’s Christmas pantomime (there is just the one) saw Scrooge as global warming personified. Besides, I don’t have the decorations collected over many years from our annual tree trimming party where friends would all bring a decoration they had made or bought specially. These, and other bits that collectively form my sense of Christmas tradition, are all dormant somewhere 4,200 miles away, on another small island. I am lost.

So I decree this Christmas we are decorating The Husband’s tree - all 65 freaking feet of it.

My pal J., a wise, kindred spirit is told of the plan, takes one look at the tree, and declares, “Call Curt. He’s yuh man”. So I do. Curt and I exchange several phone calls during which time he keeps reminding me, “Yuh know de tree real high. It go be real hard to reach de top”. A week before Christmas and there is still no tangible sign of Curt and his lights. I make one last ditched appeal: “Curt, if you want to be responsible for the trauma my sons will undoubtedly suffer if we have no Christmas tree for their first Barbados Christmas then fine. If not, I want you to haul your arse up my tree and make it glow.”

They start the next day. It takes five men, three days, and a Light and Power crane inconveniently blocking the road, to get the job finished.

My little and big boys are ecstatic. We sit at night in the front porch and admire the lights. But we are not alone. The tree, by its sheer, illuminated height, becomes something of a landmark. Cars begin slowing down as they pass our cottage and sometimes even toot their horns. Then they begin stopping briefly to get a better look or even take a photo. Then they begin parking in front our gate and admiring the tree. We are fast becoming a rest point for people on their morning walk.

But my people are not passive admirers. One night, kids finally in bed and I have sunk deep into the sofa on the porch with several books and my laptop. A small, white, Japanese car (they are always small, white and Japanese) stops in front our gate. I push myself up to get a better view. No one is getting out of the car but they are not moving on either. Two full minutes tick by. I finally break the impasse and walk over to them. I say goodnight. The lady in the passenger seat greets me and gets straight to the point.
“Why de light dem ain’t fix good round dat side? Yuh run out ah bulb?”
“Come leh meh show yuh.” She steps out the car and points to the offending bare patch.
“De tree would ah be real nice if yuh did put more light over dere.”
The man in the driver’s seat, emboldened by her comments, pipes up,
“And why yuh put up coloured bulb dem? De shop dem eh have white? Eff it wuz my tree I wod ah put up bare white bulb. Dat wod ah be tight.”

I had not realized that I was making public art to be scrutinized according to the aesthetic sensibilities of a discerning public. There was no consultation process with appropriate committees meeting for months leading up to the final installation. Valid stakeholders had not been identified and given a voice. No school workshops had been run. Briefing Documents had not been formulated and distributed. Class, race and gender sensitivities had not been fully neutralised.

Another monumental public art work, another failure… But I have learnt my lesson. Next year I am going to ‘paint with lights’ - a full-on Santa scene complete with ALL the reindeer against a backdrop of trees and bells. I can almost smell success.

December 2007.

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