I know it’s a cliché, but the joy of Christmas seems, for a lot of people, to have been swallowed up by the commercialism of the occasion, or at least that’s the perceived perception. But I think there’s something far worse going on. I think Christmas has lost its magic.
What we all want is to have a great Christmas, see family and friends, eat and drink too much, chill out and experience that moment of magic that should come with Christmas, be it that glimmer of snow, the taste of Brussel sprouts or the look on someone’s face when they open that unexpected gift. But it does seem that over the years, people are becoming less able to just accept Christmas in that simple, innocent form, the magic is becoming more and more elusive. As early as I can remember Christmases were driven by two beliefs – Christ was born on 25th December and Santa did exist and lived at the North Pole. Those were the two things that mattered at Christmas. Without them there was no Christmas. The birth of Jesus is a big day in the Christian calendar, and even though the theologians tell us Easter is far more important, the crucifixion and resurrection being the very raison d’être for Christianity, every child will tell you different, Christmas is the day. But nowadays there’s barely a mention of the nativity. I know we live in a multi-cultural society, but I don’t see why that is any reason for us to abandon what is one of this country’s traditions and what is still for many people at the heart of their core belief. We seem to tolerate countless other religions, all of which are equally full of ridiculous laws, regulations and dogmas, not to mention primitive and stupid dress traditions. But our own religion, which although it has its fair share of all those predilections, we’re embarrassed by. And this is, I believe, the driving force of the materialistic, consumer binge fest that Christmas has become. There is no heart. Whether you’re religious or not, I happen not to be, even though I was brought up in a very religious household, the biblical stories, and especially the nativity are about hope, kindness and compassion. And even the ones, especially those in the Old Testament, that are like some 18+ film in their content, they are either the bad guys, like Herod, or it’s illustrating how fear is used to oppress and terrorise people and shouldn’t be glorified. Many years ago our daughter’s school decided to do away with hymns and bible stories during the morning assembly, so we objected. Not because we wanted her brain washing into believing you could only eat fish on Fridays, but because the stories and songs had an emotional energy, an energy kids can and should engage with. There is nothing wrong with Paddington Bear, but it doesn’t have the same emotional punch. I know this is not a fashionable sentiment, but I’m not asking for Christianity to be forced down pupils’ throats, but it should be offered up as an alternative and also as one of the historical reasons for Christmas. The clue is in the title – Christ – mas.
Equally important is the belief in Santa Claus. How good is that story. A man, with a number of helping elves, spends all year making and compiling toys, sorting out who wants what, then in one night delivers them to every kid in the world. If that doesn’t preach kindness, I don’t know what does. I love the story about the generous lawyer and honest politician that get in a lift in a department store, and who should be in there but Santa Claus. As the lift starts to descend all three notice a £50 note on the floor of the lift. Which one of them picks it up and hands it into the store’s lost property? Santa of course, the other two don’t exist. The longer a kid believes in Father Christmas, the better. But I believe Santa and Christ go hand in hand. They can exist in isolation, but both are incomplete without the other and without both of them Christmas loses its heart, the heart expressed in Good King Wenceslas and Silent Night. The other day we drove around the housing estate where our children spent their formative years, and a tremendous amount of the houses are adorned with lights and Christmas scenes. Lots of reindeers, but not one camel. A few jolly Santas, not one babe in a manger. Says it all.
There is no doubt about it, for me, Christmases, over the years, have gone in phases. And like so many other phases in life, you’re never aware when one phase segues into the next. I have to ask myself, my desire to bring back the ‘magic’ of Christmas, maybe just me being overcome by nostalgia, hankering after that long-gone lost childhood. I hope not. I hope it’s because I believe everybody deserves magic in their life and the older you get, the harder the magic is to come by. For a kid it should be around every corner.
At infant and junior school Christmas began with the making of those paper candles. I loved constructing this symbolic decoration, mainly because I could – art and the making or fixing physical things was never an ability in which I excelled. I’m not sure why. I put it down to the fact my father, who was an artist, was brilliant at doing all those arty craft things. So shamefully I pleaded total ineptness, forcing his hand to step in and do it for me. It might seem strange to a lot of people in this tablet/laptop age, but we were instructed to cover all our textbooks and exercise books in paper, to protect them, then you would inscribe your name on the cover. I couldn’t even do that well, but there again I didn’t need to. My father bound the books perfectly in brown paper and then wrote, on the front, my name and class in superb calligraphy style writing. There was no mistaking my books.
The second reason I loved making those paper candles was because it meant Christmas was literally just round the corner. The minute those candles we displayed around the classroom, the nights seemed to start encroaching on the day, lights appeared illuminating people’s front rooms and up went the Christmas trees and trimmings. I don’t think it was just the fact that I knew that I would get presents on the 25th that made this a really exciting time. It was the whole atmosphere – everything changed. In those days we would have a daily assembly and suddenly we were singing carols, not hymns. Who doesn’t like a good carol? At church a nativity scene would appear and along with it came stories of shepherds watching flocks by night and Kings of the Orient following a yonder star. Then there was the main couple themselves, Mary and Joseph – turned away from the local Premiere Inn and having to slum it in a stable, with their kid lying in manger. I didn’t even know what a manger was, but I knew they hadn’t got it from Harrods. I loved those amazing stories and also the other Christmas stories that perennially appeared, especially ‘Twas the night before Christmas …. Those years of being so excited you couldn’t sleep, determined to wait up and catch Santa eating that mince pie, drinking his sherry and leaving the presents. But guess what – I never did. Sleep always overwhelmed me and I never managed to get even a glimpse of the red robed superman.
Then there was Christmas morning itself. Our parents must have dreaded it, but they never showed it. I suppose at the time we were categorised as middled class, but compared to the classifications of today, we’d have been in the poverty class. Six of us in a two up two down property, my father had split one of the bedrooms so my two sisters slept together and I slept alone in a tiny box room. Holidays were a week in Blackpool and birthdays were exciting because you got presents, but somehow not as exciting as Christmas. Part of the magic of Christmas was that other people also got presents and it occupied the whole day. Birthdays, unless it was a weekend, you still had to go to school and do everything that you’d normally do. Christmas Day was unique! It was amazing. There was no other day like Christmas Day. From the moment you woke up, you were launched into what appeared to be a different universe. A stocking at the end of your bed, how the hell did Santa get that there without waking you? It would contain an apple and an orange and maybe a bar of chocolate. Not quite sure what happened to the apple and orange, I assume someone must have eaten them, I don’t ever think I did, but as for the chocolate that would be set aside for sheer indulgence later.
Then it was downstairs for present opening time. There would always be the ‘present’, the one you had requested from the ‘real’ Santa. At that time, there were a number of Santa lookalikes, who appeared in various places, generally in department stores. They had an important job of pretending to be Santa, so the real Santa could concentrate on the job in hand. However, the real Santa did make an appearance at just one location before the 25th and that was at the department store called Busby’s. (No longer there, demolished along with numerous other great buildings in Bradford.) It was slightly out of the town centre, so it was an adventure just going there. And it was obvious this was the real Santa, because there was always a queue to see him and before actually confronting the mighty present-giver himself, you had to walk through what I believed then, and still do, to be the most magical of grottos. It was to this Santa you had to ask for the special present – the main present. If you didn’t ask him, then there was a chance you wouldn’t get it. Luckily, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t get what I asked for. Our parents were clearly skilled at directing you towards what they could afford, because there was definitely a time I wanted an electric train set or a Scalextric, but I don’t remember asking Santa for either, or being disappointed that they didn’t materialise.
Once the ritual of opening the presents was complete, then it was time to either play with them, or get my dad to assemble them. Then, far too excited for any breakfast, my two sisters and I would be sent back upstairs to get dressed in our best bibs and tuckers ready for church. Perhaps because I knew that church was an inevitable segment of Christmas Day, I don’t remember kicking off about leaving the newly acquired presents. You knew they’d be there when you got back, and the remainder of the day would be either spent playing or eating.
Christmas Day morning at church was a blast. It was carol after carol, including Oh Come All Ye Faithful, which I loved, but we only sang it on Christmas Day because of the verse that began ‘Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning’ which of course only made sense one day a year. There were a few prayers and the perennial sermon which for some reason seemed shorter on that particular day. Afterwards we’d hang around as Christmas greetings were exchanged with other parishioners, but the wait was normally worth it, as a number of family friends would normally give you gift in the shape of money, a half crown (twelve and a half p) in a brown envelope. Then the walk back home (we didn’t own a car) via a couple of back-to-back houses containing some very old people who we only seemed to see on Christmas Day. To this day I’m not sure who they were, we referred to them as aunties and uncles, but as both my mother and my father were only children, that was impossible, but they were always generous and for some reason I was always pleased we visited them. At the time this was the generation I didn’t really understand, but I knew had lived through times that I couldn’t imagine and would never experience.
Back home it would be more playing with the new toys, visits from more people we called aunts and uncles, and then the arrival of my grandfather and normally a few others for Christmas dinner, which somehow, even with attending church my mother was able to cook and get on the table. As children we’d have a smaller separate fold up table, but it was still always a family affair. The food was the only time of the year we had such things as turkey, apple sauce and trifle – my mother made a mean trifle. The adults enjoyed Christmas pudding, but I just loved the trifle. Then once the food was finished, it was time to expend energy by playing keepie uppie with a balloon. Early days we didn’t have a TV, but as soon as that appeared on the scene, then TV watching became part of the Christmas Day ritual. Whatever the day was magic. Full of events and happenings that were for that day alone.
Over the Christmas period there were two other major events, The Police Children’s Party. After the war my father joined the police, he was newly married, my elder sister was born 1947, so that Northern ethic of providing for the family kicked in. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before his creative talents were recognised and he was seconded to the drawing office where he went on to create and head up major road safety schemes and eventually was honoured by the Queen for his work. Of course, at the time I knew none of this, all I knew is that every year we were entitled to attend a party. Again, I loved it. There was of course Santa and presents, but there were also games, the hokey cokey, cartoons, and with no TV, cartoons were another piece of magic. Bizarrely my favourite cartoon I can remember to this day. It was actually a road safety cartoon based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although again, I had no idea of that at the time. It was called Mr Walker and Mr Wheeler. There was a cartoon figure, who looked a bit like Disney’s Pluto, but with human traits. His name was Mr Wheeler and as he left his house in a morning, he was the most mild mannered and gentle person you could ever meet. As Mr Wheeler walked down his path towards his car, he won’t even step on a fly. But once behind the wheel of his car … the voice over announced … “Mr Walker becomes Mr Wheeler.” Immediately his persona changed and he became bat shit crazy, nearly running people down and forcing other cars off the road. The last shot of the cartoon was Mr Wheeler still behind the wheel of his car, furiously hitting his horn and shouting insults. Then the camera pulls out and you see that his car is being towed along by a break down truck and is a total write-off. I always loved a good story.
The other major event was the Bradford Alhambra pantomime. We didn’t make this every year, I’m assuming my parents couldn’t afford it every year, but the times we went I loved. I remember it being much more of a theatrical event than pantomimes today. There was a story and a cohesive quality about the productions. Pantomimes today seem very disjointed, incredibly lacking in story, and at times very indulgent. And some parents seem to think it all right for their kids to behave as if watching the TV. They get up, walk about, buy food, talk and call out inappropriate remarks. I find it sad that parents don’t teach their children to have more manners and respect, whilst educating them in what is acceptable behaviour in a theatre. If you want to be absorbed in a story … will Jack find the money to pay the rent, will Aladdin get his lamp back or will Cinderella go to the ball … then it’s quite difficult if you’re surrounded by kids who don’t have the attention span of the average gold fish.
That was phase one of my Christmases. I was going on to describe a number of other Christmas phases, but I’m afraid those will have to wait until next December. But what I did want to illustrate was why I believe Christmas has lost its magic. There is no hope in Christmas anymore, no kindness, no compassion, no manners, just greed, PlayStations and expensive faux leather jackets. We have stolen the heart of Christmas from our children and unfortunately society will suffer the consequences. Let’s give Christmas back to the kids and make it magic again.
Apologies those of you who logged on to read TALES OF THE COP SHOP PART 2, or how my second novel EDGE OF CIVILISATION came about, but I just felt compelled to write about Christmas. And if you ever have a moment of cynicism about Christmas, then either listen to the last verse of Good King Wenceslas which ends …
“Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”
But if the Christian reference offends you, for whatever reason, how about the last few lines of Twas The Night Before Christmas …
“And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight-
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”