Thursday, 2 December 2010

Christmas Past

Christmas – a magical time of the year ushered in a few weeks before December 25th on the eve of which a traditionally fat, jovial old man shimmies down your chimney (or squeezes through some equally unlikely orifice if you don’t have a chimney), eats the mince pie you left for him, leaves a sack full of presents under the Christmas tree and vanishes with the carrot that you’ve kindly provided for Rudolph with not a trace of soot nor a muddy boot print to behold.

Well, it’s not quite like that any more, is it? Because Christmas now begins in October (at the latest), when the first wave of puddings, crackers and toys appear on the shelves of all the big stores and supermarkets. As the big day approaches the high streets become a seething mass of automatons buying in enough food and alcohol to feed a village and making those last-minute purchases that have prospective eBay fodder stamped all over them.

And I haven’t even mentioned the miraculous event that generates such seasonal mayhem. In fact, not many people do mention it these days. What should, surely, be the focus of a major Christian celebration (some would argue pagan celebration) seems to have become an also-ran, represented by tokenism in the form of plastic nativity scenes in the centre of our shopping malls and the Salvation Army band that plays far too loudly to the oblivious throngs in the foyer of your local supermarket.

When I was a child, Christmas meant something very different from the vulgar and sickening commercialism that underpins it today. There was never a mention of it before the month of December, except for the occasional prompt from my mother to ‘write and post your Christmas wish-list to Santa,’ so that the elves had plenty of time to build at least some of the toys that I had asked for.

A couple of weeks before the 25th our teacher would dole out the familiar nativity scripts for us to learn and, probably a week later, my father would bring out a large, rather dusty cardboard box from the attic with the word ‘CHRISTMAS’ written thickly in black ink on its lid. It was then that the spirit of Christmas seeped into my small soul as my mother carefully lifted out all the penny-apiece trinkets and baubles, each individually wrapped in a sheet of newspaper: glorious greens, rich reds and exotic golds, a whole wonder of trust and unquestionable belief mirrored in their metallic colours.

‘We’ll put the tree up after tea so your dad can fix up the fairy lights on it,’ she would say. And I would be responsible for draping strands of tinsel over every branch of our ageless, synthetic Christmas tree (the cheaper option preferred by the vast majority of the proletariat) that my father would ‘plant’ in a decorated bucket full of soil to ‘make it look realistic.’

Hard as I try, I cannot connect up to Christmas any more. For me, Christmas is an old experience, never a new one. I can only touch it via distant memories, or by proxy as I witness the beautiful naivety that still dances in the eyes of my youngest children.

This Christmas eve – once our children lie sleeping – I am planning to creep back to my early childhood again to search for those tingles of comfort and joy: that launch of a thousand butterflies deep in my belly as the unmistakable jingling of Santa’s sleigh bells signals his presence on a nearby rooftop, together with a sudden burst of concern that he will not call if I don’t sleep soon. And oh! The feelings of relief and happiness as, when Christmas morning dawns early, I spy the bulging pillowcase at the foot of my bed.

Peering out over the rooftops and looking beyond all the superficial razzle-dazzle and inducement, I will search the firmament for a distant shimmering light that I last saw as a very young boy. ‘Could it be a plane?’ I will ask myself. ‘Or the beacon of a radio mast? Or, high on a moorland road, a car’s headlights fusing through the mist into one single corridor of light?’ Hopefully, if my soul has guided me back to the right place, it will be a child’s star, freed from the need for proof or exploration: the only true Christmas star in existence. 


  1. As I finished reading this my soul sighed in agreement.
    It is so incredibly sad to me that by extending the 'season' the message has been diluted and lost. In fact the whole consumerist society seems to have been diluted in passion (other than for shopping) and lost.
    At age 38, Christmas last year was one that meant more to me than many had in years past. I think it is because my family was together, we had reduced our budgets and therefore made presents more meaningful, and I attended several Church services as well as Midnight Mass, just to appreciate the true meaning. My wander in a churchyard yesterday had me contemplating the season, the birth of Christ, death and the Solstice too. So it was nice to see a like mind having similar thoughts today. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Thanks Helen. Yes, we try to make our own cards & always put a special poem inside too. And I remember the excitement of enjoying my childhood Christmases with all my aunties, uncles & cousins as we sat round three tables pushed together, covered by several large tablecloths. People used to bring chairs with them knowing that there wouldn't be enough to go round! As you say, the most memorable Christmases are the ones that embrace family gatherings. Perhaps you'll be doing a little star gazing of your own, too, on Christmas Eve?

  3. What a beautiful blog post. I enjoyed reading it very much. You should try and experience Christmas in Germany. It is rather special. As far as I know, most people have real Christmas trees. Here in Saxony, there is a tradition for hand made wooden Christmas decorations and ornaments. We also have the Christmas market, with music and lights, and cinnamon in the air ... and most of all ... a vibe, an atmosphere.

    I loved the painting too. Who painted it?

  4. Thanks for your lovely comment, Quirina. There is a German Christmas market every year in Manchester that we always try to go to & which does have a lovely, seasonal atmosphere. And you're right ... the cooking smells are irresistible. As for the painting, it is called 'The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street' by Giorgio De Chirico.