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NEW YEAR MUSINGS, 2015.

8 Jan

It’s another New Year- 2015. It seems incredible to think that we are now a full fifteen years since the momentous millennium when the world as we know it was supposed to come to an end.
The frenzy of Christmas shopping is now just a memory. Many are facing the cold reality of credit card bills and accumulating debt. The Christmas trees have been de-baubled and discarded. Millions of recently sent Christmas cards have now disappeared from mantle-pieces, shelves and window sills. It’s the time of year when I always think — what was all the fuss about?
I used to be a teacher and so can reliably guess that the theme of school assemblies up and down the country has been New Year resolutions. It’s a hoary chestnut. It is time to turn over a new leaf, students will be told, as if a new number at the top of the calendar, magically generates a fresh start for everyone. More erudite teachers may mention Janus to their pupils, the 2-faced Roman god which gives its name to the first month of the year. One face of Janus looks forwards into the future, while the other looks back into the past. This encourages reflection on what has happened as well as making resolutions for the year ahead. I think this is a sound way of handling New Year. The lessons of the past have to be learnt if progress is to be made in the future. It’s not just a case of wiping the slate clean and starting again, regardless of what has happened.
Many of my own reflections are centred on the family. Christmas is supposed to be the special occasion when families gather to spent quality time together. However, I believe that family interactions and commitments should be a whole year thing. Families, along with pet dogs are not just for Christmas! At the start of this particular New Year, my thoughts focus on two very important male members of the family: one nearing the end of his life and the other yet to begin his. My son and daughter in law are expecting their first child, a boy, in early March. I hope all goes smoothly and I am looking forward to being a Granddad again. I already have 3 lovely grand-daughters but this little one will be my first grandson. It will be a special moment in my life. I was lucky to spend some time with the unborn bump when he visited me over new year along with his parents. It’s an awesome thing, thinking about this precious new life about to commence, the newest member of the family. He will carry the Bates name forward into future generations.( if the present sexist system of selecting surnames, persists.)
Perversely, the birth of a new family member makes me think about my own advancing years and of my own mortality. When a baby is born, everyone shuffles up a place. I remember when my first grandchild, Esme, was born, I took my first look at her and thought — ” Blimey– I’ve moved up a generation!” I am now near the top of the family tree, with just my parents ahead of me.
Yes I am very lucky to still have both my mum and dad. Sadly, last year saw a decline in their health and fitness such that they both need regular care, especially my increasingly frail dad. However, even this cloud has a silver lining. The positive result of the situation is that my siblings and I have come much closer together in order to help and support our parents. Increased family harmony and unity has been the happy result.
Just like the birth of the baby, mum and dad’s need for more care in their old age, focusses my thoughts. It’s strange how the 2 very different developments are linked. Both remind one of the continuity and longevity of the family and also the unconditional love that binds us all together, from the youngest to the oldest. Once the baby has been born, the living members of my family will span over 91 years and 4 generations. Will my father ever meet and talk to my grandson? I certainly hope so.
So, as this latest year gets into its stride, I am thinking both backwards and forwards. I think back on the many happy times I spent with my dad, who is now in hospital. awaiting a place in a nursing home. I remember the toy garage he built for me, the holidays to the seaside he organised for us all, the second-hand bike he did up so that I could have a crack at my cycling proficiency test. I recall the unflagging support and encouragement he has given to me over my entire life. I also think forward to the times I hope to spend with my new grandson — playing with toys, reading books, trips to the park and those first simple but magical conversations. What will his first words be? I already spend precious times with my 3 delightful grand-daughters.
The future balanced with the past. That’s what life is all about, particularly in late December and early January, in the reflective time when the year turns. A friend recently told me of a lovely saying he had read in a shop or restaurant–” The past is history. The future is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called “the present.” Happy New Year!

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STRANGE GOINGS ON IN AUTUMN.

15 Nov

Autumn can be a strange and disturbing time. Darkness descends much sooner every day. The weather gets cold and damp. The leaves fall from the trees and most of the flowers die. Many insects disappear, while numerous birds fly away, vanishing from our skies for months on end. Meanwhile people, including young children, start to dress up in weird costumes and go around the streets trying to scare others or even threaten them with mischief on their own doorsteps. In this same disconcerting season, bonfires are lit and 17th century-style effigies are burnt on them. Explosives are set off creating a cacophony that sounds as if war has broken out, frightening both animals and people of a nervous disposition. Adults indoctrinate their children into an irrational hatred of Roman Catholics as if they were still living in the 16th or 17th centuries. This results in a well known Catholic man from the past becoming a hate-figure and being symbolically burnt to a cinder on countless ritualistic bonfires. Yes, autumn in Britain can be a mysterious and disturbing time.
Of course, I’m talking in particular about the festival of Halloween and the British tradition of Bonfire Night, on October 31st and November 5th respectively. They are both very popular traditions, and if anything, their popularity is on the rise. People spend increasing amounts of money in order to take part in them. I read recently that Britons have spent in the region of £330 million on pumpkins and other Halloween party goods this year (2014). For the whole of October 31st, social- media sites were taken over by pictures of people and their children daubed with frightening face-paints and sporting costumes that transformed them into: ghosts, ghouls, skeletons, monsters or characters from horror movies. It seems that such activities all have to be exhibited online these days. I went to the supermarket to get back to normality, only to be welcomed by a she- devil and served by a skeleton. Later on in that strange day I switched on the TV to find that the barman in the Eastenders pub had a large bolt through his neck as if he was a character from a horror movie. Knocks came on our door after dark and we were greeted by neighbours’ children dressed as ghosts and zombies threatening to play tricks on us if we didn’t give them a treat. In the past, when asked the question ” Trick or treat?” I’ve always asked for a treat but never got one. I was just met with bemused looks as if it was me who was the crazy one. It was a strange, unsettling day.
It’s funny because when I was a kid we never did much at Halloween. Some of my mates referred to it as “mischievous night” and went around threatening to throw people’s gates into the middle of their gardens unless placated with a reward. But, being a law-abiding citizen, I never joined in on that. The festival seems to have taken off in recent years and become a very big event. I suppose the influence of mass media , advertising and social networking has a lot to do with it. I imagine that people come under great social pressure to conform and not to be left out in the cold. This is especially so for people with children. The value of “pester power” should never be underestimated.
But what is all this dressing up, trick or treating and partying all about? It would be interesting to conduct a survey of all those participating in Halloween and see how many understand why they are doing it. Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows Evening”. “Hallows” are saints. On the evening of October 31st, people in the past remembered the dead, including saints and martyrs. However, I haven’t yet seen anybody dressed up as Saint Christopher or Joan of Arc, have you? Christians traditionally prayed for the souls of the recently departed, to help them make it through purgatory and get to heaven. Have you seen anybody praying at Halloween? It seems that the original reasons for the festival have now been largely lost in the mists of time, such that we are now left with a celebration without a reason, a tradition that has lost its roots. I think lots of our festivals and celebrations have been separated from their original meanings. Christmas is a case in point. It’s now largely a time of material consumption, present giving, parties, family get-togethers and much eating and drinking rather than being about Mary, Joseph and the birth of their baby: Jesus Christ. The festival and the original reason for that festival seem to have become disconnected.
I suppose a few Christians might still pray for the souls of the dead or light candles on graves in the churchyard at Halloween. However, for the majority that’s sounds pretty boring and terribly serious. It’s much more fun to dress up and have a party. The connection with the souls of the dead seems to have been reduced to dressing up as a ghost or a skeleton. I’m talking mainly about the UK, the USA and other countries of the so called West. I know that celebrations in Mexico have a much stronger connection with the actual dead and in places like New Guinea , coffins are dug up and paraded through the streets so that the departed can take part in their own festival. Maybe that would be considered too upsetting in the West where people don’t normally like to think about death, corpses or coffins. In the past people used to bake soul- cakes to commemorate the deaths of loved ones. Mummers ( singers) in disguises would sing, recite verses or pray for the recently departed in exchange for being given these cakes or other food. This tradition has now disappeared. Trick or treaters don’t sing, recite or pray anymore. They just turn up in fancy dress with a candle-lit lantern and are rewarded with the ubiquitous sweets and candies. For instance, a three year turned up on my sister’s doorstep and immediately grabbed a handful of sweets as a reward for dressing up. I wonder if that little girl knew that her scooped out pumpkin is called a Jack o’ Lantern and is supposed to represent the soul of a deceased person? I doubt it.
I’m not against people having fun although you might get that impression from the above paragraphs. It’s great to have fun- times especially when you are a child. What does concern me is that most of the serious reasons for the Halloween festival are mostly forgotten or ignored. It is no longer about thinking of departed loved ones or paying respect to saints and martyrs. That depth has largely disappeared. It has become another one of our frothy, superficial festivals devoid of real meaning. As is often the case these days, the driving force behind it is big business, trying to get us to spend our money. When I Googled Halloween on my laptop, the list of references that appeared read: costumes, decorations, games, ideas, pictures. There was nothing about saints, souls, praying , singing or lighting candles. To be fair, it’s not a festival that is totally devoid of meaning. Rather it has simply acquired new meanings. I suppose, being generous, one could say that nowadays people use humour and ridicule to confront the power of death. It’s strange how people love scaring themselves and others. It is thought to be great entertainment. However, does the modern version of Halloween really tackle the sombre subject of death or does it merely provide us with yet another fun-filled distraction that helps us to avoid actually thinking about our own mortality? Meanwhile the shops and the manufacturers rub their hands in glee at the prospect of another consumer spending spree. The pressure to join in and not be left out is very powerful, especially for those with children.
Meanwhile, hot on the heals of Halloween comes Bonfire Night, a peculiarly British festival. But what is this festival about? It celebrates the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. A group of Roman Catholic plotters planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament when King James I was due to make a speech there. They hired a soldier called Guido Fawkes to handle the gunpowder which they had hidden in a storeroom below the parliament building after tunnelling through there from an adjoining house. They were disappointed that King James, the first of the Stuart monarchs had decided to keep England as a Protestant country instead of restoring Catholicism as the official church. The burning at the stake of leading protestants in the reign of Mary I ( “Bloody Mary”), the attempted invasion of England by the Catholic Spanish Armada in 1588 and the numerous plots to replace Elizabeth I with her Roman Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, had all led to Roman Catholicism becoming very unpopular in mainstream Britain. This post Reformation era had seen many examples of religious ( Catholic v Protestant) strife across Europe. The Gunpowder plot of 1605 was just the latest example. The plotters had planned to replace King James with a Catholic ruler and put Britain back into the arms of the Pope in Rome. So when the plot was discovered and the plotters executed or killed while trying to escape, it was a great cause of national celebration. Guido (Guy) Fawkes himself was captured, tortured and then hung, drawn and quartered. He was never actually burnt on a bonfire, the fate of many a religious “heretics” in those far off days.
So that’s what Bonfire Night is all about. But the momentous events of 1605 are now over 4 centuries ago. Why are we still celebrating them today? Roman Catholics have been allowed back into the fold and religious freedom and tolerance are practised in modern Britain. ( except a Roman Catholic would still not be allowed to be our monarch.) Why are we annually trying to stir up religious hatred and intolerance, and indoctrinating our children with the same out-dated prejudices? I remember watching a TV programme which showed how the rest of Europe viewed the British tradition of Bonfire Night. They portrayed us as a nation still living in the past, constantly reviving old hatreds and prejudices such as the holding of Tudor and Stuart era anti-popery demonstrations. Is this true? Are we are a nation that clings on to negative prejudices from the past? Or is it really that it’s just another excuse for a party and a celebration? Bonfire Night is another occasion when people gather together, have parties, eat and drink special dishes and generally have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Indeed Bonfire Night, like Halloween and Christmas is an important occasion that brings our nation together. It is a unifying force in an increasingly disparate nation. However, I still suspect that Bonfire Night has become a festival divorced from its original meaning. This disturbs me and I don’t really know why. I know all about the story of Guy Fawkes and King James I because I taught it every year in school. However, I wonder how many people building bonfires, setting off fireworks and burning “Guys” actually know and understand the real story behind their celebration? Also, is it right and proper that our country should annually stir up such ancient and poisonous prejudices?
I enjoyed Bonfire Night as a child. It was one of the highlights of the year. It brought our local community together. But is it now a tradition that is way past its sell-by date? Maybe, if we love firework shows so much, we should just use them to celebrate New Year?
This is the blog of a non-conformist. I hate to be a slave of tradition. I dislike being pressurised by the media and by society into doing the same things at the same time as everyone else. Christmas is always a time of mixed emotions for me. What I hate most of all is being subjected to intense commercial pressure. I don’t mind spending my money if I see a point to it. I like buying presents for my loved ones. But how many people spending large sums of cash on Halloween costumes and Firework displays really know why they are doing it? How many know the real origins and meaning of the festivals they are supposed to be celebrating? Are people really trying to get in touch with their departed loved ones or celebrating the saving of King and Parliament from murderous plotters, or are they taking part because they don’t want to be left out or called a killjoy? Lots of subtle pressures are constantly trying to persuade us to be an accepted part of the crowd. Facebook pages on Halloween or glossy Christmas adverts on TV that have already begun in the first half of November are just two of the more obvious examples. Yes it’s been a strange, slightly disconcerting autumn for me, but then it always is!

I QUITE LIKE MINCE PIES.

27 Dec

Well, it’s now December 27th, the first officially “normal” day after the great Christmas festival. I can feel the first stirrings of freedom coursing through my veins. Today, I can do what I want and nobody will care or even notice. Nobody will ask me what my plans are. For the past few weeks I have had to explain to all and sundry what I am doing for Christmas, what I am having for my dinner on December 25th, how many people I’m going to share that day with etc. I have also had to listen to what others are doing on that day, whether they are going away or how many people are coming to stay. I always suspect that there is more than a slight element of one-upmanship in all this. Am I a bit of a social failure because I have spent the apologetic-sounding “quiet” Christmas with just my wife? People who spend Christmas on their own are pitied, whilst those who enter a hectic social whirl, surrounded by hordes of friends and relatives, are regarded as a success . Today this is emphasised even more by social media. We get instant pictoral reports of what a good time everyone is having.
Since my teenage years, I have had mixed feelings about Christmas. In an earlier blog I referred to the scales dropping from my eyes, one by one. First I found that Santa Claus didn’t exist and it was really my parents filling the stocking. Then I rejected Christianity and came to suspect that the nativity story is made up, which it probably is. The shepherds wouldn’t have been watching their flocks by night in the middle of winter as it would have been too cold. The sheep would have been indoors. Next I rejected the idea of stuffing myself with rich food including the poor traditional dead bird. Finally I came to loathe the excessive consumerism and materialism that reaches a frenzy at Christmas. Why do we keep buying presents for people who don’t really need them? It’s nice to give but is it worth going into debt for? ( as some people do.)
I enjoyed the family aspect of Christmas however and liked the idea of people making an effort to keep in touch or get together. It was great having time off work to spend quality time with loved ones. I especially liked this aspect of the festival when I was a young child, and later, when I had children of my own, the “magic” of Christmas came back into my life through them. I also enjoyed the evergreen tree, the baubles, the candles and the colourful flashing lights. I still do, and love seeing the dark, winter streets lit up by everyone’s home- made version of Blackpool Illuminations. Some people go way over the top of course, ( another attempt at one-upmanship?) but even that raises a laugh and adds entertainment value to the otherwise drab days of December. I like the lights so much that I often refer to Christmas as the Midwinter Festival of Light, which it originally was.
So every December a battle goes on inside me between those aspects of the festival that I like and those that I could do without. Sometimes the pros outweigh the cons. At other times, it’s the opposite way round. It’s like a constant see-saw going up and down in my mind. I do like many aspects of Christmas. It’s just that I hate the immense social and peer pressures that demand that I conform. As Advent begins, I feel the straightjacket of conformity slowly tightening around me. If I want to do something different from the majority, I am called names — “Spoilsport”, ” Scrooge ” or “Bah Humbug”. Charles Dickens and his “A Christmas Carol” have a lot to answer for. Usually I succumb in order to have a quiet life. I try to avoid the excesses and just go with the flow. If I made a stand and opted out of Christmas altogether, many people would feel I’m being rude and anti-social. Some of my loved ones might even get upset and I wouldn’t want that.
So I take a deep breath and send the cards, buy the presents and tell everyone what I’m up to on December 25th. I really enjoy singing carols and wassailing ( I’m in a community choir), receiving cards and letters ( except the boring showy-offy round- robin letters) and seeing the light shows. I love mulled wine and even quite like mince pies. ( well the first dozen anyway.) Yes, Christmas has many lovely aspects but I’m still pleased it’s December 27th!

Post-Separation Christmas : “Outside Looking In.”

29 Nov

Christmas is for families. That’s often said. It’s one of those seasonal cliches — the cosy image of the perfect family gathered round a glowing fire ( or at least near a radiator), cracking nuts, pulling crackers, munching chocolates, exchanging presents and generally feeling happy, loved and secure. Some families travel from all corners of the country, if not the Globe, simply to be together at Christmas. They bask in the warm glow of togetherness. Some even indulge in a bit of seasonal showing off.  “They’re all coming to ours this year and I’ll be cooking for 17” How many times have you heard that one? They pretend to be exasperated with all the extra work but are secretly pleased that so many relatives want to join them on the “special day.” It’s all part of the annual, not so subtle, game of family  one-up-manship. “That’s nothing, we’ve got 25 coming . I don’t know where we’re going to put everybody!”

All this sounds very nice. It’s a lovely tradition. There’s nothing wrong with people getting together at a special time of year. But what happens if you’ve not got a family? What happens if you’ve become estranged from your relatives? What if you are actually alone at Christmas? The so-called festive season then turns into negative. It becomes a whole different emotional ball-game.

Back in Christmas 1988 this happened to me in a small way. I had been excluded from day to day family life by a no-blame separation, which eventually led to a no-blame divorce. I had done the decent thing by agreeing to my wife staying in the house and thus to be with our 3 children on a daily basis. I got plenty of access and was kindly invited along for Christmas dinner, but for the first time I woke up alone on the morning of December 25th. ( I forgot to warn you that this post was going to be a bit of a “weepy”!) I was living as a lodger in the spare room of some friends. They had gone away to visit their extended family in Greater Manchester. My “girlfriend” turned out to be commitment-shy. She presumably thought that it would send out the wrong signal if she was to spend a special occasion like Christmas with me. Thus, after visiting me for a token hour over Christmas Eve lunchtime and giving me my present, she disappeared for the rest of the holiday to join her family. I wasn’t invited.

Work and its distractions had finished for a fortnight. I couldn’t bear to go back to my parents’ place 22 years after leaving home for good, even though they had kindly invited me. I knew I would spent some of Christmas Day with my close family but basically, for much of the holiday I was to be on my own. Unfortunately this led me to have too much time to think!

Marriage and relationship break-ups invariably lead to indulgent bouts of self-pity. I was no exception. My first post- separation Christmas led to a really big wallow. I now realized that our society’s family-friendly Christmas could also be a cold exclusion zone.

As it fell dark on that Christmas Eve, I went out for a walk and couldn’t help noticing all those closed doors and drawn curtains. ( except for a small gap so you could see the twinkling tree.) In my hyper-sensitive state I felt that the doors had actually been deliberately closed on me! Absurd I know but that’s how I felt. To quote one of my favourite Mary Chapin Carpenter songs, it struck me that I was now: “Outside Looking In”.

Back at the house I got into a mini panic when I saw the whole evening stretching out before me, and I had nothing arranged. Friends weren’t available because they were all with their families or so I assumed. Dredging up some desperate courage, I went out again and knocked on the door of some new aquaintances of mine who lived nearby — C and N. They kindly invited me in and I ended up going to a party with them and, talking to lots of people I didn’t know. At midnight I helped N erect an indoor slide for his kids to play on next day. For a couple of hours I felt included, albeit in a proxy family, but eventually I had to return to the empty house. As I mentioned before, I had been invited to spend some of Christmas day with my family but for now I was alone. I had not been invited to the usual Christmas Eve gathering at our friends’ house. I was not frantically wrapping presents and I had not taken part in the dressing of the tree. In other words: I was out of the loop.

In forthcoming years I grew to value being alone for a while. The peace and the calm were precious commodities in a busy world. I would have a lie-in, go for a run while the day was still fresh, greet everyone I met with a special smile and have a quiet, relaxing breakfast before going to spend some quality time with my children. However, on that first post-separation Christmas, I did none of this. I struggled with my feelings and felt my “aloneness” very sharply. I felt excluded from the mainstream.

I experienced lots of kindness that Christmas  — from colleagues, friends, extended family and not least from my ex-wife and 3  children. However I still felt the pain of being alone for lengthy periods. In fact, perversely, this very kindness served to, at times, to actually emphasise my predicament. My mind worked overtime and I grew to irrationally resent others whose families had not been broken up . I even unfairly branded them as “smug”.

After a restless night I awoke on Christmas morning. All was quiet; eerily quiet in fact. No-one was opening presents; no children were screamimg with excitement. I had a small, peaceful breakfast, took a few deep breaths and tried to remain calm. My allotted visiting time was a couple of hours away so there was no rush. I thought I was OK and had got my turbulant emotions under some degree of control. I just had the 2 gifts with me in my adopted home. The rest were waiting for me at the family house a few miles away. There was my “girlfriend’s” Christmas Eve offering and a big colourful box from my kind hosts, S and C. I opened the latter and found it was a large hamper crammed full with delicious goodies. It was so thoughtful of them. For some reason I burst into tears. That act of kindness touched a raw nerve. It’s difficult to explain. It made me feel included but it simultaniously reminded me that I was excluded. It was a strange feeling.

Christmas Day with my family was really lovely in the end. It was nice having one of those closed doors opening just for me. The children were excited. It was as if I was delivering myself as a present to my own family! The rest of the presents were under the tree and we had a happy time opening them all. I felt loved and wanted. I knew this all along of course, but in my heightened state of sensibility brought on by Christmas, I needed these things verified. They were. My ex-wife and 3 children were all lovely and I had a wonderful day with them. We did all the usual Christmas family stuff. We ate a delicious meal, lit the candles, pulled the crackers, read the corny jokes and put on the funny paper hats. For a while it was almost as if the split had never happened, except of course it had.

As a very pleasant afternoon rolled on and it started getting dark outside, I started to become anxious .Awkward questions popped up into my mind. How long was I expected to stay? When was I expected to go? Had they arranged to do something later on? It was strange and difficult being a guest in what had until recently been my own home. I didn’t want to outstay my welcome and didn’t want my ex-wife to think that I was inviting myself for tea. I wasn’t joking when I said I was feeling sorry for myself. Self-pity seems to be threaded throughout this narrative. I’m sorry about this but I’m trying hard to capture my emotions at that time, and tell it as it was. I wasn’t really a pitiful figure, or at least I had little cause to be. I had lots of good friends and my family still loved and supported me. But it was still difficult getting used to my new circumstances and the raw emotions they generated. Those emotions seemed to coalesce around that first post-separation Christmas.

Since then I have re-built my life and pulled out of the dive. I have enjoyed subsequent Christmases with new friends, new partners and now my lovely new wife Chris. What’s more — at every single Christmas I have spent quality time with my children. In the early years we continued to play “happy families” at the old house which was very nice. Then there came a time when we outgrew this arrangement and they started to come and visit me over the festive period. Recently my 2 lovely grand-daughters have been included in the happy mix. Trips to the panto or a special Christmas production have now become a new family custom.

However, I will never forget the Christmas of 1988 and the swirling emotions that engulfed me. That’s why I still have mixed feelings when someone describes the festive season as “family get together time” and mentions :” There’ll be 26 of us sitting round the table this Christmas.” I still recall being alone for lengthy spells and being paranoically aware of the great conspiracy of the closed doors. I vividly remember the short stab of pain I felt when my own ” home’s” door clicked shut and I stood alone on the dark, garden path.

I’m sitting pretty now. I’m happy and contented and feel loved and wanted, but it’s hard to forget the time when I felt like the “outsider”. Maybe I should read that famous Albert Camus novel now, while I’m in the mood!

Dedicated to my children : Joanna, Catherine and Ian.

Teenage Christmas Angst — The Scales Drop Off.

26 Nov

On December 25th, 1967, I just walked the wintry streets all day. For company I had a small, close-knit group of friends. For sustenance I had a small Tupperware box of vegetables in cheese sauce, kindly donated by my sister and pushed into my hands as I left the house. So what on earth had happened? Had I been rejected by my parents? Why wasn’t I with my family, exchanging presents and pulling crackers in the warmth of the house? Why wasn’t I looking forward to the richest, tastiest meal of the year?

Well, I had not been disowned. It was MY decision to go out all day and brave the December weather. I was in my late teens and I had been doing a lot of hard thinking. Once I had realized that my parents’  lifestyle and opinons were not set in concrete, I hastened to develop my own independent ideas. This incredibly had led me to reject several key components of our traditional family Christmas which had previously given me so much enjoyment as a child. By 1967, aged 17, I was determined to boycott much of it. To the bemusement of my well-meaning but long-suffering parents, I swapped the cosy but claustrophobic Christmas at home for the cold freedom of the streets. My friends and I forsook our lavish Christmas dinners for a small snack in a damp park. We did this because we wanted to show that one didn’t have to follow the diktats of tradition. It was possible to wriggle out of the straight-jacket and do something different.

We pretentiously read poetry to each other, imagining we were Allan Ginsberg- like rebels. OK, we were nothing like the Beat Poets of 10 years earlier but we did empathise with them to a certain extent, as we too felt beaten down by the conventialities of society ( I believe that’s how the “Beat Movement” got its name.). Unlike James Dean however, we were rebels WITH a cause. We wanted to expose the less acceptable aspects of Christmas in our opinion.  We no longer viewed the festival through rose-coloured spectacles, but in a newer, harsher light. To use another analogy, the scales were dropping off. Here are the reasons why.

[Don’t get me wrong. My parents were ( and still are) loving and generous. They organised many wonderful Christmases for me as a child. ( see last blog: “Childhood Christmas.”) However, as I grew up, I came under different influences through school, friends and books. I came to realize that there were alternative ways of looking at things.]

The first scale to drop away was the beguiling but totally fictitious myth of Santa Claus or Father Christmas. To the youngster, the idea of a kind, jolly old man,  riding a reindeer- pulled sleigh across the sky and popping presents into the stockings of every child in the world, is one of the highlights, if not THE highlight of Christmas. To the young, the presents appear on Christmas morning as if by a miracle. However it is all based on a “white lie”. The untruth is told for the best possible reasons but once a child discovers the truth, then a lot of the “magic” of Christmas instantly evaporates. It’s such a disappointment and an anti-climax to find out that it is your own parents who are delivering the presents, drinking Santa’s sherry and eating Rudolph’s carrot. It’s still nice receiving gifts but the magical aura previously surrounding them has now largely disappeared. Later on, I was to discover that Father Christmas or St Nicholas actually came not from Lapland but from Turkey, a country that does not have reindeers or elves! In fact, much of the myth of Santa Claus was developed relatively recently in the United States and Santa’s mythical clothes were changed from grey to red to suit Coca Cola who thought the brighter colour would look better in their adverts. So much for the innocent “magic” of a young child’s Christmas!

The next “scale” to drop off was the religious one. Christmas has become increasingly secular in recent years anyway but in the 60’s the Christian story of Jesus’s birth was still widely promoted and accepted, especially in our family who were devout and regular church goers. However, as I went through my teens I became increasingly suspicious of several aspects of the Nativity story, which had always been sold to me as the “Gospel Truth”. Did I really believe that Mary was impregnated by Immaculate Conception? Did I accept that Joseph, when he found out that his fiancee was pregnant, just took it in his stride and went along with the incredible, unprecedented idea that she was having God’s child? Did I really believe in choirs of angels singing in the sky or that 3 Wise men or Kings would travel a great distance to give precious gifts to a poor baby born in an obscure stable in a provincial town? It all makes a cracking story because it is so unusual but once cynicism entered my thought- processes I began to doubt its veracity. The story, accepted without question by my chapel- going parents, was about as believable as your average fairy tale. Also, I thought, why did the 3rd “Wise man” give Myrrh to a new-born baby, when this sweet smelling incense was most commonly used on dead bodies? It’s hardly appropriate I think unless you are a Christian looking for a significant symbol of Christ’s premature death.

As I grew older I came to realize that many other people also did not believe in or ascribe any importance to the nativity story. What about all the Hindus, Muslims, Sihks, Buddhists and even the Jews? Why were they not celebrating the birth of the “Son of God”? What about the athiests who did not believe in God or the agnostics who were not sure? Were they all wrong and only the Christians right? My parents would say it is a question of faith and that a true believer does not require proof. However, my doubting mind couldn’t help noticing that many more people did not believe and had no faith in this “earth-shattering” event than actually did!

Thus, despite the romanticism of the story and the beauty of the carols, I came to reject the Christian aspect of Christmas. Later, my cynicism increased when I learnt that the Church had hi-jacked the pagan midwinter festival of light. [ where people appealed to their gods for the coming of Spring, of light, warmth and of re-birth when all seemed dead and and dark in the midst of winter]. The Christian church supplanted this and adapted it for their own ends, pretending it was their festival all along. Later still, through my research as an RE teacher, I found out that historical records point to Jesus actually being born in September! So by late adolescense I had lost my faith in the Bible’s Christmas story. I did not want to go to church and hear it all again, so I took to the streets.

Another issue that forced me out into the cold was my growing awareness of the amount of poverty, famine and inequality there was in the world. I know that Christmas in the West is supposed to be a time for thinking of others less fortunate than ourselves. I whole-heartedly agree with this. The idea is constantly repeated in school assemblies and church sermons throughout the land. Businesses and celebrities adopt certain charities. The media looks for heart- warming stories of people helping in soup kitchens and temporary hostels for the homeless being set up. All this is very good. As a child I enjoyed giving as well as receiving gifts at Christmas. But I came to realize that many, if not most, of peoples’ presents were being given, not to the poor, but to people who already had a lot. How many times have you heard the question: “What can you buy for the man/woman/child who has everything?” In fact older relatives in my experience, often get so exasperated about trying to think of something to give to a child who already owns lots of toys, books, clothes, games etc., that they admit defeat and simply hand over the money!

I became more aware of this as the 1960’s rolled on .It seemed to me that Christmas was mainly becoming an orgy of materialism. This has grown a lot worse since then. Slick advertising persuades people ( especially children) that they have to have certain things or they will be missing out. Imagine being the only person in your class or on your street who doesn’t own a Kindle or a Smartphone! Poorer parents often stack up their credit cards and push themselves into debt to buy the required items for their children. By 17 I was already aware of excessive consumerism in our society, with Christmas being the time when it reached its grand crescendo. The shops were packed throughout December and there was a frenzy of frantic buying. This is still the case today with the Internet also joining in the “fun”. Postmen and women exhaust themselves delivering constant parcels to people’s doors.

On top of all this, the thought of starving people in famine- struck Africa and elsewhere, started to put me off my massive Christmas dinner, not to mention all those mince pies, cake and chocolates. I realize that much of this hand-wringing and moralising must sound terribly pompous and boring after a while. I admit I was like that as a teenager, constantly angsting as I  set out my ethical “stall”. I can still be like that today. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful to my kind and generous parents and I am not advocating that everyone should have a serious and miserable time at Christmas. But ( yes — there’s always a “but”) I could not and cannot ignore poverty, inequality and starvation in the world. At the time this made me much less inclined to eat, drink and be merry. It was the extravagent excess of Christmas that brought this reaction out of me.

The final and probably the biggest factor that made me so disillutioned with Christmas was my conversion to vegetarianism. Don’t worry, I am not going to explain this in detail again as it is covered in previous blogs.( cf — “How My Grandfather Turned me Into a Vegetarian.”) Suffice to say that my” Saul on the Road to Damacus” moment was seeing my Grandad’s slaughtered chicken lying lifelessly on our work top, its broken neck hanging at an awkward angle away from its body. My father thought he was being kind when he asked me if I would like to help pluck the feathers off and remove the giblets. At 17 he probably thought I was old enough to be able to do this “man’s” work. To his surprise though, his offer had the exact opposite effect to that intended. Instead of stepping forward to assist in this important job, I shrank away in disgust! Inside my mind I heard a distinct click — it was the “penny” dropping. Or you could say it was another scale disappearing from my eyes. Previously I had thought of our Christmas bird as a delicious piece of food and a special treat. Now I saw it for what it really was — a creature that had had its life prematurely snuffed out so that we could consume its flesh. In a previous post I have noted the irony of celebrating a birth (of Jesus) through a death. ( of the chicken.) This has sadly got to be multiplied millions of times every December as enormous numbers of  birds — chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese — are slaughtered on an industrial scale so people can stuff themselves at Christmas. I suddenly felt this very strongly and refused to eat that poor creature and have never knowingly eaten meat since. It’s no surprise that I felt compelled to go out all day as I wanted to take no part in something that I strongly disagreed with. Christmas has been a difficult time for me ever since.

Those rebellious years of teenage tantrums and walk- outs have now long gone and I have calmed down a lot.( thank goodness!) I have allowed myself to enjoy the numerous aspects of the Christmas festival which are harmless and pleasurable. This was especially so when I had my own family  and my first wife and I recreated the magical Christmases we had both enjoyed as children. I hope our 2 daughters and son enjoyed them too. Yet, I have never been back to Christmas morning church services after all those years of being forced to go. The nearest I got to this was a candle-lit carol service in Hexham Abbey, Northumberland. It was beautiful and atmospheric but extremely cold!  What’s more –I have retained that uncomfortable feeling about the explosion of consurism and over- indulgence that Christmas always seems to trigger. It goes without saying that I remain repelled by the mass killing of animals and birds simply to fill peoples’ stomachs. Last but not least, I am still enough of a rebel to want to fight against the constrictions of tradition. Why should I be forced to do exactly the same things as everyone else at exactly the same time? I know its an important bonding mechanism for the family and for the nation as a whole, but the James Dean in me still finds it pretty oppressive and I want to break out! It’s enough to make me want to go for a very long walk, or read a book of pretentious poetry! Amen.

Childhood Christmas — Fond Memories of Innocence.

22 Nov

I used to love Christmas as a child, back in the 50’s and early 60’s. Our lounge was decorated with twisted, coloured streamers, the mirror and pictures sported sparkling fringes of tinsel, bunches of holly appeared above the door and a traditional tree festooned with baubles and flashing lights stood proudly in the corner. OK — it was an artificial tree, but to my sister and I, it was real enough and we looked forward to decorating it and plopping the fairy ( or was it an angel?) on the tip of the very top branch.

At school we missed lessons to have class parties with sandwiches, cakes and jellies, and then were rewarded with a whole fortnight off. Everywhere, a sense of excitement and expectation filled the air as the great day got closer and closer. Both at school and in church we sang the much-loved,” traditional” carols (actually, mostly written in Victorian times). They all had that warm, reassuring ring of familiarity about them. Soon we didn’t need the song sheets to tell us the words of “Away in a Manger”, “We Three Kings” or “Silent Night”, along with numerous others. I especially like ” Oh Come All Ye Faithful” as everyone seemed to belt it out in a rousing manner and my dad and grandad sang deep, rich bass parts. Similarly, the soaring soprano voices in “Hark the Herald…” were indeed, to my child’s ears, just like angels singing in heaven. When I got older, I wrapped up warm and went carol singing with friends. Our breath hanging in clouds before us in the cold air, we sang our hearts out, being rewarded with: opening doors, smiles, extra spending money and sometimes, warm mince pies. However, the real reward was the sheer joy of singing and of joining together to feel part of something that was bigger than any of us. That’s one of the real positives of Christmas. It’s a great coming together in a spirit of goodwill such that we all feel part of a warm, caring community.

Then there were the Nativity plays. Three boys in colourful dressing gowns and shiny cardboard hats would carry important looking boxes that represented the gifts of: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Nobody actually knew what frankincense or myrrh were but they sounded suitably exotic and rare. The gifts would be ceremoniously presented to a specially selected boy and girl, also in dressing gowns but this time with tea-towels on their heads. The girl would cradle a doll which she had taken from a wooden crib. Pretend shepherds with their pretend sheep were already there, so before us, that famous event in a Bethlehem stable was magically recreated. I think many of us were so transported by the occasion that we truly imagined a special, bright star was at that moment shining right above us and a trio of camels plus a small flock of sheep were parked just outside.

Christmas Eve was extra special as expectation had now reached fever pitch. Our tree was twinkling away as were many others in the neighbourhood. ( although we didn’t have the over-the top, Beverley Hills- style extravaganzas that we often witness today.) Special foods had mysteriously made their way into the house. Bags of Brazil Nuts and walnuts, complete with fiendish looking nut crackers suddenly made an appearance. The fruit bowl was overflowing with apples, bananas and tangerines. Sticky dates or fleshy figs arrived in boxes decorated with pictures of turbaned Arab gentlemen or a  long-shadowed camel standing by a palm tree.

The radio ( and in later years — the telly) featured carols at regular intervals and we sometimes listened to the carol service from Kings College, Cambridge. There were also lots of other seasonal songs usually involving snow and/or bells and usually sung by Bing Crosby. In our religious and classical music- orientated household, the Huddersfield Choral Society usually made its annual appearance at this stage, singing Handel’s Messiah and especially the “Hallelujah Chorus” and “For Unto Us A Child Is Born.” My mum and dad had both performed that in their time. Once that lot got going and their magnificent music swelled to a stirring crescendo, even Bing and his fake Hollywood snow had to take a back seat.

As we got deeper into Christmas Eve, a stillness seemed to descend on our house, if not the whole world. ( in my child’s mind’s eye.) We sat around the bright flickering open fire and felt a warm glow of family togetherness and happiness. Eventually, my sister Glenys and I went up to our rooms, but were barely able to sleep because of the excitement that was now only hours away.

Now we come to the most memorable moment of the whole festival — Christmas morning. We emerged from our sleep early, usually about 5 or 6 am! And there, at the bottom of our beds, were big, bulging pillow-cases. We didn’t get piddly little stockings! This is the most intense moment of excitement in a child’s life — Christmas morning and the arrival of the presents! Father Christmas had been. He had actually parked his reindeer sleigh on the roof and come down our chimney! Yes, I believed it all ! It’s funny that today we lecture our children about stranger-danger, yet happily tell them that a wierd old man with a long, white beard is going to sneak into their bedrooms in the middle of the night. However it is through this myth, propagated by almost the entire adult population, that the true enchantment of Christmas is realised for our children. I may be cynical now but as a young child, I experienced that wonderful magic for myself. The fact that it was based on a lie and was giving me an early grounding in materialism, is by the by. It was still genuinely special.

In that bulging bag were: my Billy the Kid annual, my Rupert Annual, the latest additions to my fleet of Dinky Toys ( model cars), a toy train set, my sweets and my selection boxes. Each year it varied of course. I remember one year I was really pleased to get a magic set, another time I got a tricycle, to be followed by a bike a few years later. But the selection boxes were an ever present. Yes — there were whole boxes of chocolates, just for me! In that moment, Christmas was not a time for thinking of others as society likes to claim it is. At that specific time Christmas was extremely exciting but also extremely selfish. These were MY presents. These were MY chocolates. Mine, all MINE! I think younger children pay lip-service to the spirit of giving. Encouraged by adults they write cards to friends and family and present little gifts ( bought on their behalf) to others. However, basically for the under 10’s, Christmas is an aquisitive time. Selflessness only comes slowly as we get older and take a less ego-centric view of life.

So now it’s Christmas morning. My sister and I play with our presents and race around screaming with excitement. Everything is different on this special day. We have a carol service on the radio ( wireless) and unbelievably we consume pork pies and ketchup for breakfast! ( A strange family traditionlong since lost in the mists of time.) A church service now follows even though 6 years out of 7,  Christmas does not fall on a Sunday. I grew up in a Christian family, so the religious significance of Christmas was always emphasised. In the Methodist chapel service, we sing those familiar carols again, this time putting special stress on the final verse of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” — ” Yea Lord we greet Thee, on this happy morning!” The preacher talks about the baby Jesus as being God’s gift to the world and the well-worn bible passages are read — Isiaih’s prophecy, Mary’s Annunciation, the donkey trek to Bethlehem for the census, no room at the inn, the shepherds seeing the angels, the star and the journey of the Magi. Even at chapel where it’s usually pretty boring and serious ( in my child’s opinion), everyone is smiling and happy. Glenys and I receive shiny half-crowns from kind members of the congregation.

Then it’s back home for more playing with the presents and more stuffing of chocolate down my throat! One year I hid behind the settee and methodically gobbled the entire contents of a large selection box! I wasn’t much into sharing in those days. I only realized my terrible mistake when I went green about the gills, rushed upstairs and  wretched up half a toilet- bowl of brown sick! Lesson learnt I think.

That year I didn’t have much of my Christmas dinner, but usually, right up to age 17, the Christmas meal was one of the highlights of the day if not the year. For a family on a very moderate income ( my father was a railway engine driver), we normally ate conservatively. Sunday dinner was the biggest meal of the week. Well, Christmas dinner was like a Sunday dinner with knobs on! We had all the richest traditional fare and the stars of the plate were slices of tender pork accompanied by apple sauce and sage and onion stuffing. We couldn’t afford turkey or even chicken as the 50’s were before the days of factory farming and mass production of cheap poultry. Chicken and turkey were still luxury items to us. As I entered my teens we started to have a chicken on Christmas Day as my Grandfather had a small holding and gave us one of his birds as a treat. At the time I thought it was the tenderest, most delicious meat I had ever tasted. It literally melted in my mouth. This was truly an exceptional day I thought. Later, of course , I became a vegetarian because of that very same Christmas chicken from Grandad Bates, but that’s another story, already told in a previous blog.( “How My Grandfather Turned Me Into A Vegetarian.”)

Our dessert was also traditional — a rich, fruity Christmas pudding smothered in sweet white sauce.( even better than custard.) I loved it, even though being good tee-total Methodists, we never had brandy in it. The afternoon meandered pleasantly through to tea time with the bewitching atmosphere hanging on. It was a day I wanted to last for ever. My dad gave demonstrations of his skills with the nut-crackers and how to use a pin to prise out the bits of sweet nut from seemingly inaccessible nooks and crannies. I tried to copy him and spent many a happy hour trying to winkle out the tiniest of morsels. It’s much more fun than buying a packet of ready shelled nuts. How boring! We also tried to eat the dates ( or figs) with little wooden forks but were never quite sure whether we liked them or not.

Christmas afternoon was always arranged around The Queen’s speech which came at 3pm. This was on the radio and from the mid-50’s onwards also on the telly. Even at a very young age I found this incredibly stuffy and boring, but it was impressed upon me that it was important so I fell into line. For many years we had to listen to it in silence, an atmosphere of awe descending on our house as if she was some sort of Deity speaking to her humble disciples. For my parents and grandparents this Royal interlude was very special. I think it took them back to the dark days of the Second World War, when King George VI had addressed a beleagured nation, once he had got his stammer sorted out, and put fresh hope back into everyone’s hearts.

Christmas tea was light, a sensible idea considering all the rich food we had been consuming for most of the day. The highlight of tea was definitely the Christmas cake which my mum or grandma had probably baked back in September. Again we were traditional and, as a child, I fully concurred in this as it was reassuring to be like everyone else and to know exactly what was going to happen every step of the way. Surprises can be unwelcome and the very thought of them can breed insecurities. Our Christmas was certainly well within our family’s and our nation’s comfort-zone. Thus we got a rich, fruit cake topped by a layer of yellow marzipan, glistening white icing and lots of tiny, sweet balls arranged in decorative patterns. Little models of Santa, reindeer , fir trees or snowmen were stuck on the top for further decoration. It was delicious and so rich that one could only have a small slice at a time.

As I got older and reached puberty, Christmas tea posed a tricky dilemna. I wanted to eat it and get my teeth into the cake, but I also wanted to go and see the traditional pantomime that was always on the telly around that time. I like the gags, the songs, the dancing and the knock-about comedy, but most of all I liked the shapely, long legs of the leading man. No, this was not the beginning of homo-erotic stirrings, because the leading man, complete with seamed stockings and high-heeled shoes, was actually an attractive woman. It’s one of those panto traditions that I’ve never been able to fathom, but very welcome nevertheless! Thus I always fancied Prince Charming a lot more than boring Cinderella! And all the time my parents sat there, totally oblivious as to why I was so keen to see the panto.

I’m so sorry to have changed the tone of this piece now, as most of it has been devoted to my pre-pubertal age of innocence. Burgeoning sexuality, cynicism, vegetarianism, athieism, anti-consumerism and probable quite a few other “isms” had not stirred their worldly -wise heads yet. ( not until the later 60’s.)

It was all downhill after the pantomime. The presents had been opened and the wrapping paper thrown away. The special food had been eaten and we were feeling totally stuffed. The chapel was closed up, now that Jesus had been born yet again.( Maybe this is where “Born-again Christians get their inspiration from.) The Queen had disappeared back to Sandringham or possibly Balmoral. My Dinky cars were parked in their garage and my train track packed away. However, the tree still twinkled and the magic of Christmas still lingered on, only very slowly fading away into ordinariness. Boxing Day was officially designated as  special but it was a bit of an anti-climax really. It was a day for eating the left-overs and generally recovering from the excesses of the previous day. ( and we didn’t even drink alcohol. Raisin “wine” does not give you a hangover.) Maybe a special show would be on the radio or ( a little later) a blockbuster film on the telly. Boxing Day also had football matches which often ended in stodgy 0-0 draws because the players were still full of turkey and pudding. Certainly, by the end of December 26th it was all over and normality returned. People emerged from their annual seasonal trance, gave each other dazed looks and stoically prepared themselves for an endless procession of grey, ordinary days. Back in the 50’s and 60’s we didn’t celebrate New Year very much in England.

I enjoyed my innocent childhood and my enchanting Christmases. I loved the lights, the songs, the parties, the cards and the presents. However, on reflection, I think it was the comforting security of well-known routines that I loved the most. Also the fact that just about everyone took part (or so it seemed) made me happy to be part of a massive shared experience. This is something that tradition brings — togetherness, a sense of belonging ( and thus of identity) and the safety net of the familiar. It is what is so important in childhood but which makes growing-up so problematic and scary. Since my early childhood I have developed an increasingly ambivalent attitude to Christmas and to tradition in general. I resent being forced into a communal straight-jacket and being mocked or criticised if I don’t play along. However, as a child I was very happy to live the cliche and it led to some of the happiest days of my life. In some ways I wish I could travel back to those early Christmases and relive the joys of innocence, but unfortunately, that door has now closed for ever and I cannot pass back through it, except perhaps in my fond memories.

This blog is dedicated to my parents, Maurice and Jessie and to my sister Glenys. They all helped me to enjoy some wonderful childhood Christmases.