A few years before ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Charles Dickens had this to say of Christmas: “Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas. There are people who will tell you that Christmas is not to them what it used to be—that each succeeding Christmas has found some cherished hope or happy prospect of the year before, dimmed or passed away—and that the present only serves to remind them of reduced circumstances and straitened incomes—of the feasts they once bestowed on hollow friends, and of the cold looks that meet them now, in adversity and misfortune. Never heed such dismal reminiscences!”
Yes, he really did write sentences that long; a habit acquired from once being a jobbing writer who was paid by the word. But since that was written in 1835 it proves, if proof were really necessary, that there have always been complaints that ‘Christmas isn’t what it used to be.’ I was standing in a very long queue a few days ago behind a woman who, judging by her basket of perfumes and sprays and soaps, had the smelliest family or friends in Northern Ireland, when she protested loudly to me that ‘the fun has gone, it’s all too commercial now.” So why did she feel the need to be part of that sort of Christmas? Why was I there?
I accept that Christians still celebrate it for the right reason, but even they get caught up in the hoopla of the secular hard sell of must-have presents. Yet Santa has replaced Christ as far as newspapers and television are concerned and the mystery of the Wise Men has been supplanted by the ratings battle between celebrity chefs and celebrity dancers. For the vast majority of people the most important person at Christmas—the Number 1, if you like—is the winner of the X Factor. From Christmas, to Xmas, to X Factor, it’s been a one-way journey from a time when it was the sound of bells and carols rather than the kerching of tills and the whoosh of the credit card which defined Christmas.
December 1961 is the first Christmas I can remember. I was six and had been adopted a few months earlier. In the same way that my brain’s defence mechanisms have either wiped or locked down every aspect of my orphanage and pre-orphanage life, they have also set in stone the list of presents and knick-knacks I was given fifty years ago.
My stocking contained an orange, a string bag of chocolate money, a bag of nuts and raisins, a slinky, a yo-yo, a mouth organ, a packet of mint humbugs (my favourite ever sweets), a Jacob’s ladder, a potato gun, a magnifying glass, a jar of marbles, an airfix plane and a pack of Happy Family playing cards. The main presents were a Hornby train set, a Lego town, a cowboy outfit and a new bed and cupboard.
At lunchtime we were joined by my aunts, Esther and Nell, both in their late seventies and with a fondness for furs (which reeked of mothball), rouge, blood-red lipstick, perfume and Harvey’s Bristol Cream. We ate boiled ham, lettuce which had been boiled with the ham, roast chicken, roast potatoes, sprouts, mashed potato and broad beans: followed by Sandyman Trifle (a fruit trifle drenched in port) and a cheese which tasted like boot polish.
After lunch we listened to the Queen’s message on the radio (we didn’t have a television) and then a pantomime with Arthur Askey and Ted Ray. My father rustled through a couple of books, I played with my train and Esther and Nell dosed off, making those strange sort of parping noises that little old ladies make when their digestive systems have been overloaded with sherry. My Mum, meanwhile, spent a couple of hours in her beloved garden.
For the next decade each Christmas was a variation of that set routine. But Christmas Day 1972 was another red-letter one, for that was the year my Mum bought my father a television and I discovered the wonders of Pan’s People on the Top of the Pops Christmas special. The fact that they couldn’t really dance was neither here nor there, all that mattered to me was that they wore very short skirts and did an awful lot of jumping about.
Yet don’t let anyone kid you that Christmas television was some sort of golden era back then. Yes, there was the Morecambe and Wise Show, the Two Ronnies, the Generation Game and Mike Yarwood: but there was also Val Doonigan, Max Bygraves, Jimmy Tarbuck, Sooty, Basil Brush, the Black and White Minstrels, Billy Smart’s Circus and a variety show which always involved fake snow, woolly cardigans and a preposterous duet involving Cilla Black and an opera singer.
For most of the 1980s and 90s I didn’t celebrate Christmas. I had left home, my father had died in 1977, my Mum had later gone to live in France and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about with cards, presents, false bonhomie and the ‘Christmas message and magic.’ I had become an atheist by then: not the evangelical atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens, which wants to blame religion for everything that goes wrong, but the sort of atheist who accepts that you do the best that you can to keep going for as long as you can before kicking the bucket and providing a meal for worms. Not a very inspiring way to live life, I grant you, but it suited someone as insular and solitary as me.
I managed to avoid seeing people at Christmas by telling anyone who invited me somewhere that I already had an invitation to go somewhere else: which meant that I spent quite a few Christmas and Boxing Days on my own. That suited me very well, because I could eat what I wanted, watch what I wanted and read undisturbed for hours on end. There was no need to indulge in catch-up conversations, feign interest in the doings of people I only saw once a year or, worst of all, end up playing Twister with toddlers and bored teenagers. I wouldn’t describe my approach as Scrooge like, but nor could it have been described as ‘entering into the spirit.’
Then along came Kerri, the Pollyanna to my Grinch. She comes from a family that loves Christmas and loves to celebrate it. She doesn’t have a religious belief in the conventional sense, but she does believe that everything happens for a reason and that a positive outlook is always preferable to cynicism. She believes in fate, destiny, karma and the Universe—-but most of all she believes in random acts of kindness and the overwhelming power of goodness.
She also persuaded me to rethink Christmas. For every complaint I had about it she gave me a positive. So where once I would have whinged about religious superstitions I now see the good work of the Black Santa or Salvation Army. And Christmas doesn’t just have to be about celebrating Christ: it can be a time when you are just quietly thankful for friends and family. Surely, she would argue, it’s much better to be grateful for the many good and positive aspects of your own life than moaning about the commercialism and religious hypocrisy of others?
Most important of all, though, we now have Megan (13) and Lilah-Liberty (2), and there isn’t a single day when I am not grateful for their existence. So if the only purpose of our Christmas was the fun we have together and the sheer pleasure of watching them decorating the tree, covering the windows with homemade paper stars, trashing the kitchen during baking experiments, ripping open cards, jumping on our bed on Christmas morning, along with the cats and dogs, or making snowmen at the front door, then that would be enough reason to celebrate Christmas loudly and cheerfully. Indeed, just watching Kerri with the girls is enough for me!
I think I understand the view that behind the glitter and tinsel we are meant to focus upon the ‘true meaning.’ After Scrooge’s run-in with Marley’s ghost and the three spirits he ‘became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh…as he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.’ Also, it’s worth remembering Scrooge’s final line to the final Spirit; ‘I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.’
Surely that’s what it’s really about—even for the millions who will over-indulge with food and drink, or gather around a variety of screens in different rooms, or collect the receipts so that they can return the pile of unwanted presents, or, worst of all, who will shed a hidden tear at the end of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ because they are too embarrassed to let others see them cry.
The secret of A Christmas Carol’s enduring appeal is that Dickens didn’t allow it to become a religious tract. This is a story about personal redemption. Scrooge wasn’t a bad man, or even a wicked man. He was just a lonely man detached from most of his fellow men. But what Marley reminded him was ‘that mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence, were, all, my business. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?’
Look at any charity billboard or television appeal and you will hear Marley’s question still being asked. Asked, I suspect, because Christ’s message (as opposed to Christianity itself, which is a different kettle of fish altogether) was based on compassion and charity. Asked because many of us do take a few days to reflect on our lives and our families at this time—and midst the confetti of wrapping paper, the babble of the TV and the faint whiff of overdone turkey, most of us are lucky enough to be able to count our blessings.
So whoever you are and whatever you believe, enjoy the holidays. If you can, either read or re-read A Christmas Carol. Better still, read it out loud with the family around you. It is a wonderful book. Happy Christmas!