Saturday, November 29, 2008

Christmas tree, nightmare tree

The fear was as disturbing as it was out of place.

The Christmas tree was cheery and colourful, adorned with the customary decorations, faux presents and assorted shiny bits. But the little child shrank back in what was quite clearly terror, his eyes little moons as his body shuddered convulsively.

Mum looked on in puzzlement. She was in the foyer of the infant care centre where Sonny spends his weekdays, and the little child - perhaps eight months older than our seven-month-and-a-week-old - was usually one of the friendlier inmates. Yet unless the staff had been tossing him into the pine cones again and again in some sadistic game, Mum could come up with no explanation for his behaviour. Most young children, after all, love Christmas trees and must be sternly warned not to mutilate them. Terror, however, was definitely animating the situation.

Eventually, after subtly questioning a couple of caregivers, we learned that the child in question had previously brushed up against the pine needles. Somehow, this had left him with a memory of great discomfort. Yet presumably every other child in the centre must have had tactile encounters with the tree. Why did just this one react so negatively?

We took away from this mystery a reinforced sense of the essential strangeness of children. They take fright at inexplicable things, with emotional residue attaching unpredictably to chance encounters. A tot will become fixated with some gewgaw or other and spend weeks trying to penetrate parental defences in order to gnaw at it (we're thinking of Sonny's unceasing charges at Pa's slippers here). They find someone to be terribly fun, and someone else deadly boring, with no rhyme or reason to the distinction.

And how different are we, as adults? We like to imagine that we are much more logical, far more able to behave in accordance with preferences lashed all about with tendrils of reasoned thought. One sometimes wonders whether this is as much an imagined characteristic as the child-feared horrors of the Christmas tree.