Friday, 24 December 2010

The magic of Christmas

Christmas past - long past. As for most children in (supposedly) Christian societies, Christmas for me as a child was a magical time. It all started sometime after Bonfire Night, probably much earlier than my mother really wanted, and probably as a result of craft activities at school with a Christmas theme. Making Christmas decorations required much patience from our teachers before they could be hung in the classroom.

Then we would decorate the house with paper chains and balloons. The front room, unused for most of the year, would be decorated with shop-bought paper chains while the back room - the one in which we lived for most of the time - would be decorated with paper chains made from strips of paper gummed at one end so they could be linked together. The shop-bought chains lasted many years, although there were sometimes one or two new ones introduced. Once they had been hung across the room from each corner to the central light and along each wall, those in the centre had to be embellished by hanging lametta (thin silver paper strips) over them. But the highlight was the tree. Two of my uncles would go out into the woods and cut a suitable branch of a fir tree for us and it would be the job of my brother and I to decorate this with baubles and the string of coloured fairy lights. My brother and I delighted in lying on the floor in the front room in the dark, late afternoons with just the fairy lights on. As the days passed, presents would be placed under the tree and we would try to guess what was in each parcel, surreptitiously feeling and gently shaking them for clues.

On Christmas Eve we would each place a pillow case at the foot of our beds in the sure and certain knowledge that Father Christmas would visit us. Of course, he never failed and we would delight in sitting up in bed in the early hours of Christmas Day to see what toys he had brought. Given the general post-war shortages, I look back in amazement at the imagination my mother displayed each year I can only think that she started her planning (and buying) pretty early, certainly before Thanksgiving!

Christmas dinner was a real treat - roast chicken. Why chicken should have been so expensive back in the 40s and 50s I really can't imagine, but it was, and to have a whole bird placed on the table at Christmas was indeed a treat.

Years pass. While I am a teenager we move from Gillingham to Hangleton and start attending church regularly. St Helen's is a small church, almost 900 years old, and our there from home walk takes us along a footpath beside a field. Although St Helen's is no longer isolated on the South Downs, much of the area is still farmland. Christmas Eve midnight mass and the church is packed. Eighty people would fill the pews, but for this service chairs from the church hall have been placed down the aisle and in front of the choir stalls. Still people have to squash five and six to a pew made for four. There's a feeling of magic in the air, especially as the congregation sings the last him - ‘Christians, awake, salute the happy morn'. We walk home with the tune still ringing in my ears and I want to burst into song.

More years pass. With three young children in the house Christmas is different again. Both sets of grandparents and the OB's unmarried aunt join us for the afternoon and for tea, Christmas dinner having been eaten at lunchtime. After the adults have tried out all the children's toys and the young ones are in bed, we get out the playing cards. Sevens and Newmarket are the favourite games with matches used as counters - a ha'penny a knock is the rule.

Still more years pass. The children are children no longer. Indeed, we are now grandparents ourselves - albeit with just the one grandson. Christmas dinner is now eaten in the evening with ten or eleven of us round the table. I should say tables plural, as the dining table is too small and we have to extend it by bringing in the kitchen table and chairs. Grandson is tucked into his carrycot, the washing up is done by many willing hands and the cards come out again, only this time it's for a noisy game of Uno. The OB's aunt takes great delight in forcing whoever is next to her to pick up half the pack.

This year things will be different again. Older son and his wife split a couple of years back and the grandsons are with their mother while their father and his new partner (with her daughter) will celebrate on their own. My daughter and her partner are in Australia to watch the cricket so she won't be with us for the first time in many years. There will be just five at table this Christmas lunchtime - the two of us with younger son, his wife and our darling granddaughter. It will be a quieter Christmas than for many years (despite the non-stop chatter from the youngest one) but just as joyful for all that.

My wish is that all who read this may have as joyful a Christmas as I shall.

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