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.