Graeme Cumming started me thinking with his article about the Christmas spirit. I can recall a lot of my childhood Christmas gifts, including the four foot golly my mother bought me when I was fourteen. I never knew why, just that it was wholly inappropriate on every possible level… I remember the Britain’s zoo and its garden … and the great big board my grandfather made for me to lay it out, complete with plaster mountains, that doubled as a battle ground for the knights. A prophetic mix. But the ones that ‘meant’ Christmas were the family traditions of handknitted jumpers, hand embroidered handkies, tins of toffee (the ones that came with a hammer) and the yearly diary with its key.
It was the little things that have stuck and resurface first when I think back. With my own children it is the family gifts that stand out… the ones we bought so that we could all play together. Like the snooker table. Christmas always started with the carols in the market square, organised by the local Rotary Club. Townspeople gathered with their children to sing in an atmosphere of friendliness so palpable it typified the Christmas spirit and always brought tears to my eyes. Mince pies, soup and mulled wine were shared and Santa arrived on his sleigh with little gifts for every single child and a chance to tell him their Christmas wish.
I never wrote a Christmas list… after all, it shouldn’t be up to the recipient to choose, but the giver… and anyway, I always liked surprises. Although I have no doubt at all there were many things I desperately hoped for but didn’t get, I don’t remember either them or disappointment. That in itself says a good deal…both about the inherent lessons of children not getting everything they want, but also about what it is that sticks in the memory.
What I do remember is visiting the grandparents and collecting great grandma before we gathered for lunch. The feeling of magic and anticipation, the corny jokes in crackers that we all read out anyway and memories shared of childhoods and Christmases older than mine.
I remember too the feeling of going Christmas shopping with carefully hoarded (and usually supplemented) pocket money, in darkened streets with lights that seemed magical to young eyes. The living nativity under the portico of the Town Hall, Christmas carols in every shop, the market dripping holly and mistletoe and smelling of pine… and a feeling of friendly excitement everywhere.
Not so now when Christmas starts midway through the year in the shops, when people are stressed by the credit still hanging over them from the Christmas before and decision makers are so fearful of being seen as politically incorrect that the traditional Christmas has almost disappeared from our towns.
Even with the tensions, the commercialism, the heavy handed bullying of advertisements, I don’t think the spirit of Christmas can be wholly undone, even by the PC brigade. Christians will still celebrate the birth of Jesus, for pagans it is an older rite, for many, regardless of faith, it is a time for the gathering of families and friends; and for those who keep Christmas whatever their reason, at its heart is always an underlying vision of shared joy and peace.
There will always be the Christmas argument between Great Aunt Maud and Uncle Harry… or whichever faction decides to glare over the turkey. There will always be the child who prefers to play in the box rather than with its contents. And it will always be the little things, the human things, that remain in memory. Or at least, that is my wish for Christmas.