A Life of Christmases

The nature of Christmas changes as you go through life but the Christmases of your first memories stick with you into your dotage.
I can still remember the fever of excitement of going to bed on Christmas Eve having left one of my father’s woolly socks at the end of the bed and of waking with the heavy, crackly weight of a stuffed sock on my feet. I remember how mercilessly I was teased by my brothers because I’d christened my new doll ‘Dereline’. Derelict Dereline became their chant for the next few weeks until they tired of my wails.
Then there was the year that my longed-for book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ was there, an oblong wedge along the ribbed sock, above the toe which contained a satsuma and a sixpence wrapped in newspaper as well as a walnut.
There were always family gatherings, when more gifts were bestowed [Fuzzy Felt was a new innovation in toy technology then] and we’d be coerced into writing a list in preparation for thank -you letters.
Once we were teenagers the obligation to spend the day with our parents jostled with the desire to be with our friends, others’ homes often seeming to be more fun, more welcoming or more riotous than our own. We no longer wanted to sit around watching the Queen’s speech or playing pencil and paper games with my parents, preferring the anarchic hilarity of drinking games in darkened rooms and puerile jokes and tricks.
Later, as a student I’d often need to work over the Christmas period, a requirement that would set me free from family obligations. Later still marriage and parenthood provided new difficulties as the emotional tugs of two sets of parents clashed.
Parenthood allows you to relive your own childhood festivities for a time as you work to create the magic you experienced yourself. You stay up late wrapping up small gifts and tiptoeing into bedrooms to leave a stocking or a sack. You remember to eat the mince pie, down the sherry and bite into the carrot that was all left as an offering before falling into your own bed for what will be a ludicrously short sleep. You are rudely woken in the small hours by electrified tots jumping all over you…
Having assumed you will never get enough sleep again the tots morph into teenagers, rarely making an appearance before midday and no longer excited by Christmas stockings. They resume their solitary commune with screens and games while you jostle the pans to make a gargantuan dinner they may or may not want. It is clear that mince pies and Christmas puddings will die a death, as subsequent generations reject traditional fare for chocolate concoctions and ice cream.
Then they are gone. They make their own lives [you hope] and in what seems like a blink, have their own children. Your role as a grandparent is an attempt at non-judgmental support. You provide when requested. You step back when not.
In an extraordinary twist and for the first time in twenty-one years, this year we are not playing host on the day. We’ll be celebrating with a late start, brunch, a good walk and dinner in a local hostelry. Magic!

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Christmas is not for Life-it’s just for Christmas.

Christmas is almost upon us again, returning with almost indecent speed. With a couple of weeks to go I’ve begun to turn my attention towards gathering up some gifts and writing some cards.

As I stood at a till yesterday the cheerful sales assistant enquired as to whether this was the end of my Christmas shopping quest [we were waiting for the card issuer’s response]. It made me smile. “No!” I told him. “This is my first go.” His eyebrows shot up. “I did all of mine in September. I’ve followed my mum’s example. She always begins in January and does it all throughout the year.”   I explained that in September I would just be going off on holiday and still in summer mode but his behaviour is not unusual. What kind of lives do people lead, that their entire year from January is devoted to preparing for the one day that is Christmas?

Husband is at the other end of the extreme, proclaiming each year that he will begin on Christmas Eve and reminding me of the time-honoured male boast that ‘the garage will be open late the night before’.

Christmas, however is changing. It takes on elements of other cultures and evolves like other celebrations and festivals. In my childhood my mother made Christmas puddings months in advance to allow the flavours to develop and we undertook the magic ‘stir-up’ process of making a wish. I am sorry to say that I haven’t perpetuated this tradition due to the fact that none of our progeny can stand the sight or smell of Christmas pudding. The same applies to mince pies and Christmas cake. Having been brought up in a similar way, Husband and I are more partial to these treats than is good for us, so I’ll be purchasing a tiny, delicious pudding for us to share and some chocolatey, indulgent desert for the next generation. I will, however be making some mince pies because it is an activity and an outcome that I cannot resist.

As a child Christmases followed a routine-from the arrival of one or other maiden aunt to the strict recording of who’d given what [in preparation for the hated ‘thank-you’ letters]; from the division into three of the pound or ten shilling notes [a tricky business] given by aunts and uncles to the round of Boxing Day visits and evening party games. If we’d seen Santa Claus it would have been in a department store with a sparkly grotto.

We woke on the morning to feel the weight of a crackly, knobbly, woolly sock filled with the expected items [a tangerine, a sixpence] and some unexpected ones. I can still remember the excitement of finding a hardback copy of ‘The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe’ next to my stocking, the gift I had longed for more than anything on earth.

Christmas is no less exciting for small people these days but I do wish it didn’t have to start cranking up in September!

 

Christmas Climates-what’s your preference?

In 2011, towards the middle of November, in the midst of an extended trip to New Zealand followed by Australia we found ourselves in Adelaide in temperatures of around 30 degrees. And Christmas was cranking up.

Adelaide was delightful-quaint architecture [what goes for ‘olde worlde’ in the New World], a busy, buzzing city with a vibrant night life, cheeky, fun bars and plenty of attractive, green spaces.

During most of our road trip we’d been disappointed with evening, cultural life. The vast majority of bars, devoted almost entirely to gambling-‘pokies’ and horse racing-tended to shut around 9.00pm. We’d show up just before, at a time we are accustomed to setting out in the UK to be told we could get one drink before they closed up, or that they were in fact just closing. We were mystified. Where was the fabled ‘wild west’ lifestyle, the Bohemian, carefree, party, outdoor social whirl?

Turned out I’d been watching too many ‘Wanted Down Under’ programmes. Other than for an early evening meal no one bothered with going out except hardened gamblers, who sloped off in inevitable disappointment once the books were closed.

Adelaide, though was different. The nightspots were thriving. There were throngs in abundance. The locals enjoyed life. One bar proclaimed it was ‘the worst vegetarian restaurant in the world’, in praise of its steaks. Result.

Our hotel, reserved by Trailfinders [hence not a penny-pinching hostel such as we’d have selected if left to our own devices] was magnificent; a monument to luxury and decked tastefully in the burgeoning Christmas items that were adorning the city. Christmas trees sparkled at the foot of the sweeping staircase.

Outside in the street the stores sported their own Christmas displays-Santa and his reindeer cavorting above the porch of a department store, tinsel glinting in the searing heat of the sun.

To those of us accustomed to Christmas in the Northern hemisphere the appearance of Yuletide decorations in a heatwave is a surreal experience. I responded with a driven desire to obtain Australian style tree decorations-a mission in which I failed, until my kind, Antipodean aunt, seeing my predicament mailed me a beautiful, red and white felt kangaroo to dangle from the branches of our own tree.

Still more outlandish, Hong Kong-where we stopped over on our return in late November-boasted enormous Disney-style Christmas trees constructed entirely of plastic cartoon frogs and vast ornate merry-go-rounds in glittering gold and shiny purple. All this in an atmosphere that could wilt a cactus.

I am in awe of those who celebrate the festive season in a hot climate. But despite being one of the first to complain about cold, dark, frosty mornings and bleak winter nights there is something very special about Christmas at home, here in the UK where we still retain some semblance of changing seasons. And after all, with only one week until the shortest day [in daylight hours] spring is just around the corner.

Reading Life

                Reading habits differ as much as tastes in TV or music. There are those who do not read at all, choosing to derive their entertainment from the screen. There are those who eschew books in favour of newspapers, magazines or manuals. There are those who consider fiction beneath them and opt for worthy non-fiction. Then there are issues of class or generation.

Years ago I was quizzed by a gentile, elderly great-aunt-in-law as to what my preferred ‘light’ reading tastes were and I responded with more enthusiasm than prudence, eagerly blurting out a long list that included lurid thrillers, shallow romances, juicy, explicit murder mysteries and science fiction. Her stony faced response was an impressive put-down as she shared her leisure time favourites- Jane Austen, George Eliot-and for more vicarious pleasure, Charles Dickens. I refrained from inquiries about her ‘serious’ reading choices, fearing I may have already become so far out of my depth my feet had floated out from underneath me.

I was a voracious reader as a child; the child who could not be torn from a book for anything, not to help with the dishes, to lift her feet for the vacuum cleaner or for sleep. There were books I longed for, having heard them serialised on the radio [a joy children are deprived of these days]. The Christmas morning I awoke to find that Santa had left a hardback copy of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ on the end of my bed is my most memorable. I still have it, along with many other beloved childhood novels- Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and Eleanor Farjeon’s beautiful take on Cinderella, ‘The Glass Slipper’.

As a teacher of young children I managed to squeeze in enough time to indulge my enjoyment of children’s literature by regular readings of my own favourites as well as theirs-Roald Dahl and Dick King-Smith included. It was gratifying to see them coming in with their own prized copies of these novels, even those whose ability was not quite, yet, up to the task of reading the stories themselves.

Then there are the film versions. I have never been able to shake the compulsion to see a film version of a book despite knowing from experience that it is never going to match the depth and pleasure of its print original.

Even now that I am approaching my dotage I still come across novels that captivate me to a point where I become evangelistic about them, urging others to read them and feeling vastly disappointed if the response does not match my own. D. C. B Pierre’s ‘Vernon God Little’ was one of these. I eulogised ad nauseam over it but found no one to share my enthusiasm. When my frustrations at the dearth of post book analysis became overwhelming I joined a book club, only to find that within the narrow confines of those who enjoy fiction novels there is the same mismatch of tastes.

But whatever is read, one truth remains. The written word is the most wonderful invention known to man!