As time marches relentlessly on and refuses to allow me to slow this hideous ageing process down I approach the festive season with feelings inside that seem directly opposed to my younger sensations of anticipation, excitement and exuberance. There is a sense of sadness and dread. However many of my contemporaries do not seem to experience the same reversal of emotion so it has caused me to ponder Christmas and why I feel the way I do now. I don’t want to feel like this, I might add. I would like to feel joyous and excited again!
The first memory I have of Christmas is entering a room lit by a coal fire, with an enormous Christmas tree, fully illuminated and surrounded by gifts wrapped in brightly coloured Christmas paper. Unwrapped, though, was my present, a blue baby’s cot with a doll sleeping inside it. Now as I analyse the memory I think it might be a false one because the picture in my head doesn’t match the reality of the proportions, the artefacts and the geography. Except for one thing. The cot. I still have it, and the doll. It was in fact made by my father out of an old orange crate and painted with blue gloss paint, with the bedding and doll’s clothing made by my mother.
My second memory is immense! I was about 3 or 4 years old, an age where the anticipation of Christmas was palpable, the thought of Santa real. It was Christmas Eve and I’d been put to bed with my stocking at the end of it. But I couldn’t sleep, for the feeling in the pit of my stomach was almost making me nauseous. I was bursting with excitement. And some fear. Had I been good? Would he visit? All the possible Christmas anxieties a toddler could muster. Then I heard them. The tinkling of bells. Tiny bells. Silver bells. And old as I am now I can still hear that sound in my head. We lived in a corner house and mine was the corner bedroom. If I sat up in bed I could see out of the window. I sat up. I pulled the curtain aside. I looked into the clear dark blue night sky. And then I saw him. Father Christmas. Six reindeer, pulling the sleigh. Arcing across that night sky. The red tunic. The white beard. He was coming. Here’s the thing though. It was such a powerful vision I can STILL see it now.Just as it was then. Even though I know it couldn’t have been so. But I could still swear that I saw Santa Claus that Christmas Eve.
Further memories seem to be a conglomerate of traditions and an ambience of the season. Visits to see Father Christmas in the local department stores. The purchasing of the Christmas Tree, usually no more than a week, ten days before Christmas, and the giant box from the loft that contained all the decorations, so familiar, year in, year out. The unusual large, lotus flower tree lights we had. My Dad bringing the step ladders indoors to hang the garlands across the lounge, or front room as we called it. My mum dressing the sideboard with crepe paper, most years Xmas colours, one year rainbow colours, and loading it until it was groaning beneath the weight of annual treats and delicacies that had me salivating - Percy Daltons peanuts in a red metal tin that you opened with a key, a box of sugared orange and lemon slices, Turkish Delight in an octagonal box, Black Magic chocolates that were in a black box with a red tassel, and a bowl of cracking nuts and the family nutcrackers taken out of retirement for their annual airing, tangerines and sugar mice. For a child it was like living in a sweet shop. And underneath the sideboard - fizzy drinks of all flavours which the Corona man delivered.
Christmas morning smelt like no other. Awake early to check the stocking and to explore the contents with my younger sister. Desperate to get up and see what else Santa had left for us but knowing we couldn’t wake our parents. Back then we were unaware just how tired they were for we had no idea of all that they did to make Christmas so magical for us. But my mother was obsessively house proud and we could not enter the front room until it had been heated though by the Belling electric fire we owned with the flickering light coal effect and she had hoovered thoroughly. Years after when we spoke of it she bitterly regretted her behaviour. The cooking of the Christmas dinner infused the house with a mouth watering aroma that accompanied our frenzied present opening, our dear Mum returning to the kitchen continually to check on everything and we got annoyed with her! The meal and the crackers and the gifts from the Christmas tree and a feeling of fullness as we left the table to play with our new toys and my parents dozed in an exhausted food coma. I was desperate not to go to bed on Christmas night because I never wanted the day to end. We were all together, all harmonious. I wanted to capture the moment and never let it end. That was my childhood Christmas.
My teenage Christmas wasn’t very different if I’m honest. I still got excited. We still followed the same customs, and the day still smelt the same. I didn’t go to Sunday school or church. I was desperate for the Christmas lunch to be over so I could watch the Christmas Top of the Pops as I was hormonally infused with the self absorption of the adolescent. I had made Christmas lists with a materialism I had never known in my childhood.
Young adult Christmas where the biggest worry was if the hangover would impact on the day. But the traditions endured apart from a toning down of the sideboard display and fewer decorations across the room. Even after we stopped believing in Santa we still hung our stockings at the end of the bed! Mum and Dad still crept in with the filled one! Our stockings were our Dad’s old army socks, three pairs, three kids, six socks, three empty to be hung, three filled to be exchanged. When I think of the years we never twigged that!
The spiritual side and meaning of Christmas was not ignored. There were years when my brother and I were bundled off to Sunday School on Christmas morning, (my sister was too young and I envied her) but for me it was interminable because all I wanted was to get home and open my presents. But I’m glad now that I had that installed in me as a child. Not to forget what it’s really all about.
I remember the first Christmas when I was in my own home. Although it was a given that I would go to Mum and Dad’s and stay, with cats in tow, I wanted to make a contribution. I made sweets and biscuits and cakes. And even though my parents were older the feeling endured.It was unmistakably Christmas. In following years when sometimes with partners and children etc it wasn’t possible to spend Xmas Day at ‘home’ or even see my family until Boxing Day I felt there was something missing.
The first Christmas without my father was tough as it was in the November that he died. Understanding partners allowed us all to be together with my mother on Christmas Day. My brother’s young son was the only excited party that year. And I guess that was start of what I now call the Xmas decline. For it could never be the same again. Dad loved Christmas. And every Christmas without him made us miss him all the more. Traditions were let go. But some things remained. My Mum’s Boxing Day trifle. The Xmas copies of the Radio and TV Times. The smell of Christmas Day! That never changed.
And then the inevitable passing of my mother. I do remember her final Christmas. She was 82 and had cooked a Christmas dinner every year of my life. My sister cooked it that year and somehow that felt to me like another significant change although we didn’t known then that she wouldn’t be with us the following Christmas.
Since then I haven’t really enjoyed Christmas. The first one after Mum died I was still looking after her cat and had to trudge over twice in the snow on Christmas Day to her house to feed him. Then there was the time when my cat was hit by a car the week before Christmas and her life hung in the balance. I spent that Christmas Day watching her anxiously. She survived until the July of that year.
Now I go through the motions of Christmas. I buy gifts and send cards and I try to participate in the various activities. I toy with decorations and the myriad festive lights. Sometimes I get a frisson of that old feeling, the Christmas Market in Bruges one year made me feel gloriously Christmassy but it was fleeting. It’s all tinged with a nostalgia that hurts somehow, if that is the right word? For I find myself tearful at the snatch of a familiar Christmas tune and I can recall my Dad playing carols badly on his Yamaha organ or my Mum singing along to Slade or Elton John. And the coloured lights suffuse me with emotion as I recall our simple family Christmas tree and its beautiful lights. For I did love Christmas. Once. And I can’t seem to love it now. I despair at receiving Christmas cards in November. At trees and decorations being put up so early they become commonplace and you almost stop noticing them. The commercialism and zeal for profits from brands and companies. Maybe if I’d had children of my own I would feel different. For I believe it is primarily a family time whatever your beliefs. I wish I could thank my parents for the Christmases they created for us. Like so many things i took it all for granted. But now I look back upon it all I know that Christmas was all about love.