‘Our tree is hung with love & memories’
Why decorating their festive pine is so special for Cass Hunter and her sons
My eight-year-old son Matt knelt on the floor of our flat, arranging tinsel and decorations on our small tree. We’d made a star with cardboard and tin foil and, as he stuck it on the top, his face was full of pride. Decorating the Christmas tree is a ritual in many homes, but for us, the tradition holds bittersweet memories, a special poignancy that will stay with both of us for ever.
Matt was just five when our lives were ripped apart. His father, Glen, suffered a heart attack and had died in the night, aged just 37. Matt had found him, simply saying, ‘Dad won’t talk to me.’ The shock was unimaginable. It was November 1997 and Glen and I had divorced a couple of years earlier but we’d remained close and I couldn’t believe he’d gone. Matt had been staying over with Glen and, that morning, I had the devastating phone call from Glen’s mum, who lived in the same block of flats. In a daze, I went to collect my boy. He was too young to really understand what had happened, but as we drove home, he said: ‘When we get home, can we put up the Christmas tree?’
I was puzzled. It was only November but I wanted to do whatever I could for Matt at this time. ‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘Why?’
‘Because Dad won’t be here for Christmas,’ he said. ‘But he’s an angel now, so he’ll make Christmas instead.’
I looked at him in the rear-view mirror. Christmas was the furthest thing from my mind, but if that was what he wanted to do, we would do it.
At home, I dug out our Christmas tree. Although it was more than six weeks early, we decorated it, stringing lights and
hanging baubles. I couldn’t even feel the emotional impact of what had happened. The practical implications were enormous. I was 29, a solo parent, without the support of my parents as they had both died. I was alone, and I had to support my little boy who had lost half of his world.
But of course, Matt was the reason I got through it. The practicalities of parenthood kept me busy and kept me sane. That’s how the tree came to symbolise our grief and our hope. I knew I owed it to Matt to stay strong.
That year, the tree stayed up beyond Christmas, as we came to terms with the enormity of our loss. We took it down on Twelfth Night, and slowly we began to move forward as a family of two.
We went through so many emotions in those first months. I found myself furious with Glen for not being there, and bereft because it was so hard to make decisions without him. We kept his memory alive, talking about him and looking at photographs. Matt often asked about his dad’s taste in music, and liked to listen to the rock and heavy metal Glen had loved.
Matt had to reimagine his future, one without a father. He was brave, strong and practical, but he did seem to struggle physically. He was small for his age, and developed asthma for a few years. I often thought this was brought on by shock.
I had no idea how to help Matt, so I did what felt natural. He had questions about his dad’s death, and I answered them as honestly as I was able. I think this honesty formed the basis of our relationship. For the next seven years, it was the two of us against the world, and the only way we could do it was to be truthful, direct and work as a team. Every year, we put the Christmas tree up together. It had become a tradition, our way of remembering Glen.
PLANTING NEW ROOTS
Three years after Glen’s death, a work opportunity meant Matt and I moved to London. It was that Christmas, when he was eight, that was particularly poignant and he hung an angel on the tree to represent Glen. A few days after Christmas, snow fell. It was the first snow Matt had ever seen – he was awestruck.
Yet life was hard in London; I struggled financially and had no friends around me. If I hadn’t joined our local church, I don’t know if I would have stuck it out. They had an excellent choir and I signed up just before Christmas in 2001.
Matt and I were drawn into a community of friends with their own traditions. Some were ancient and church based, and some modern, like the Christmas Eve curry and pub visit before Midnight Mass.
It felt that we had a new ‘family’ and it was here that I met Tom, the man I fell in love with. We got together in 2005, and married in that same church a few years later. Matt, then 16, gave me away. He delivered a beautiful speech at the reception, welcoming Tom to our family. I know it’s a cliché to say it’s the happiest day of your life, but it was.
As that year’s festive season came around, my husband’s family decorations joined ours on the tree. Even when Matt was a teenager, the tree remained an important part of our Christmas and he never missed the chance to decorate it.
In Christmas 2008, we hung a pair of booties on the tree, a symbol of the new family member who was to join us. The next year, Ted was born, a much-wanted addition. Matt was overjoyed and despite the age gap, they are very close.
CHRISTMASES TO COME
Now, 21 years after the morning that changed our lives for ever, decorating the Christmas tree is still a tradition in our family. On a crisp December evening, Matt, Ted and I will go to the garden centre. There, we’ll choose our tree and wedge it into Matt’s car. In the living room, we unwrap it and I always put on cheesy Christmas tunes (they both love Wham!’s Last Christmas) and leave the boys to decide on the placement of each decoration. Matt, 26, likes the tree to be symmetrical and stylish; Ted, nine, has a more eclectic style. There may be more than 16 years between my sons, but when it comes to decorating the tree, it’s hard to tell who is the most excited.
One lesson I have learnt over time is to treasure happy moments, no matter how mundane. I cherish this one every year − my boys, laughing together. As Matt lifts up his little brother to place the Santa on the top of the tree, I watch them and reflect on how far we’ve come. I don’t think I believe in angels, but if fiveyear-old Matt was right, I’d like to thank his personal angel. That awful Christmas broke us, but it also made us. Our tree is no longer a symbol of sadness and loss. It’s sprawling, abundant and hung with love and memories.
‘The tree is our way of remembering Glen’
Clockwise from left: the family’s special angel; Matt when he was a toddler; father and son were so close
Cass and son Matt on her wedding day