‘Christmastime’, they used to call it – but Christmas has always felt more like a place than a time, to me.
It’s like an island, somewhere off the shore of the ordinary year, which we’re summoned to by some mysterious signal. Its landscape is piled up with memories, all converging at once. These are often cast in a fairy-light glow – but rarely correspond to the clichés of cheap greeting cards and old films.
I’m always taken back to one particular Christmas Day – 1978 I think (but don’t need to know). There, I relive a significant argument featuring my sister, then 14, and me (21), joining forces against our elder brother.
As I recall, we girls were settling down with our beloved The Sound of Music, then getting its TV premier. In he walks – from his in-laws – to announce: “We’re not watching THIS are we?!”
Unrehearsed, in unison, von Trapp-like, we exclaimed: “Yes. Yes, we are.” With which – in my mind’s eye – he spins on his heel and isn’t seen again until December 30. How we cheered; I can still hear it! Girl power was invented that Christmas – it might be worth making a note of the year, after all.
The folklore of family festivities is full of ‘The One When the Kittens Ate The Scalextric cables’, ‘The One When the Telly Blew Up’, and ‘The One When the Oven Broke Down’, and the turkey browned in a kindly neighbour’s kitchen, coming back over the garden wall in time for carving.
My mum is 90 and remembers Christmases by gaslight, the Salvation Army band playing in the glow of the lamp at the end of our road; her recollection is so woven into my own experience, I now see it too. We both really do remember the heavy snow of 1963 and the 6ft high drifts. In Mapperley it often (I want to say always) snowed at Christmas and pushing strangers’ cars uphill was a tradition.
I sometimes wonder why the view from every new Christmas only ever faces the past. Perhaps it’s best. I am my own boss now so on Christmas Eve I can go for a walk and look for glimmers of hope in that magical, fading light; for better things. I hope this Christmas isn’t Mum’s last.
Must Christmas’ magic fade? That’s up to us. Recently I played Father Christmas for the family across the road. They were away for the holidays; as well as feeding cats, I laid out their young daughter’s presents on the hearth, in time for their post-Christmas return. Not adverse to a theatrical touch, I provided a half-eaten carrot, a morsel of mince pie and a note commending the little girl’s good behaviour. So perhaps Christmas lets you do magic, if you’re not too exhausted by the year-long journey getting there.
Whatever you do for Christmas, arrive safely, and have a magical time.
* First published in the Nottingham Post