It’s that time of year when I remember the Best Christmas of All. I think it’s a composite Christmas, a combined memory of Christmases in the mid-late ’70s, when I was eight or nine. Maybe that’s the age of peak Christmas, where you still believe the magic and everything is tinted with the multi-coloured glow of Quality Street wrappers.
My house was a hive of activity – my dad loved to organise parties and liked to make drinks for people from his cabinet. We had a succession of visits from friends and extended family and I loved the surprise element of it all: aunties, uncles, cousins, mince pies, ginger ale (for me) and copious trays of nuts you had to crack open, and Quality Street. That’s what Christmas was made of, back then. And the legendary Boxing Day party at the house, where my duty was snack-serving and observing drunken behaviour without really knowing what it was.
And oh, the sights and sounds. The huge, real tree, in reality far too big for the living room, with the classic ’70s frosted baubles and multi-coloured lights that always needed about twenty bulb changes to get them going. I was probably a huge health and safety hazard but my favourite thing to do was to wriggle on my back under the lower boughs of the tree and look up through the branches at the lights. I’d blur my eyes to make the image even more magical. To me, everything was still magical.
My mum had told me the truth about Father Christmas by the time I was eight. It was a lovely, very Catholic explanation, that allowed me to hang on to a bit of the magic. I was told that he wouldn’t *actually* come down the chimney any more (even though we had gas central heating and there was no chimney I went with it) but his spirit would enter the house just the same. If anything, I got more into Father Christmas at that point (never ‘Santa’ in our house).
Everything contributed to the magic. My advent calendar, pre-chocolate, was a beautifully illustrated nativity scene which ended with the doors to the stable opening to reveal Mary, Joseph and Jesus inside. I couldn’t wait for that moment. I studied the scene intently: the Angel Gabriel, the shepherds, the wise men – everyone was there, or behind the doors. I read the St Luke Gospel, with its classic nativity narration, and loved the story of the holy family finding shelter in the stable.
It will come as no surprise that I was *always* the narrating angel in the school nativity play. Always the narrating angel, never the virginal mother. Seems my life has turned out that way. I was the one that had to stand front-of-stage throughout the whole thing, arms crossed over my chest, quoting bits of St Luke while god knows what went on behind me. One year I had to sing ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ on my own and my mum told me I was ‘flat’ afterwards. She was a trained soprano. Thanks Mum – no one realised I was actually an alto at the time.
I *loved* getting into that angel costume. It was the wings and tinsel headdress that did it. And the makeup! At my primary school we also got a visit from Father Christmas, who’d give us presents from his sack. I distinctly remember getting a selection box featuring a chocolate gun, packet of cigarettes and a cigar. And a lighter. Ah the ’70s.
I was lucky in that my dad was a local councillor and ended up being Chairman of the town. I accompanied him, with mum, to switch on the town lights one year (I need to dig that photo out). He also used to run the Rotary Club Christmas float and dress up as Father Christmas to fling sweets out of the back of it. My sister was commissioned to paint the sides of the float with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I was so proud when that float went round our estate and I followed it round with the other kids, boasting.
On the day itself, my dad started proceedings by cranking up the record player with his Mantovani ‘Christmas Bells‘ album. I loved its gaudy cover. Then my mum would shout upstairs (for some reason our kitchen was below the lounge) and ask for Jonny Mathis, especially ‘When a Child Is Born‘. My mum spent most of Christmas in that kitchen, not her natural habitat, shrouded in pressure-cooker steam and never more than a foot away from a glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, that my dad kept topped up.
I remember one distinct Christmas where I was captivated by Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas, and I still am. The glorious Prokofiev Troika sample track is still one of my favourite classical pieces. I used to alternate When a Child is Born with Greg Lake, and stare out of the lounge window into the darkness of the evening, imagining indistinct Christmassy things. I had Lake’s ‘eyes full of tinsel and fire’. (I also think it’s why I love Dr Zhivago so much).
A year later, and my dad died, taking with him almost all of the family traditions and pretty much my belief in magical things. It would be a few years before I dropped Catholicism and religion completely. Like Father Christmas, I believed Dad’s spirit still visited the house, but was less convinced of that in the end. All I could think about was how he’d been the one who’d eaten the mince pies and the whisky I laid out on Christmas Eve, and somehow it was ok to believe that he sort of did it *for* Father Christmas. They were almost the same person in my mind, given that Dad was wont to impersonate him from time-to-time for the Rotary Club.
So there it was, crystallised forever, the Best Christmas of All. I feel very lucky to have had one like this at all, and think about it every year when I put up my own tree. It’s partly a homage to those days, but without the sprawling mess of paper and random gifts all over the living-room floor that my mum used to get me to help her with.
Did anyone ever use their Imperial Leather box set with soap and flannel, or the Old Spice talc and socks? Or the cuddly bunny holding a bottle of Charlie perfume? Probably not. But no one cared about that. It was all part of the big old magical mess that is Christmas.
However you’re spending it, I hope you are with the people you want to be with, in the place you call home.
Happy Christmas, one and all.