Christmas Eve was the most exciting day of the year when I was a child. I don’t think anything has quite lived up to it since. We were alone in the house, my parents and I. Christmas Day was the big day for us, when the house would fill and overflow with aunts, uncles, friends, cousins, my formidable Grandmother, and anyone else who could squeeze in. For years I thought this was because we had the best house, or because my parents were so popular, or even because I was so popular. Long afterwards I realized that everybody came to our house simply because we were at the meeting point of several bus routes, and nobody had a car.
But on Christmas Eve it was very quiet, the way soldiers describe the calm before a great battle, and the anticipation was almost overwhelming.
In retrospect there wasn’t much to anticipate. Compared to a modern Christmas it was a poor affair, materially speaking. We’re talking about London in the 1940s, during and after the war. It was dark, and often cold. There was strict food and fuel rationing, and new toys scarcely existed. But somehow my parents managed to put on a Christmas with homemade gifts and decorations, and food that was hoarded and stretched out. We had to compensate for the lack of material things with sociability. This explains why material things are so popular.
I learned more about real life in the winter holidays than I ever learned at school. I was an only child with many female cousins, who came only once a year for this special party. We had plenty of pagan mistletoe, of course, and we played a variation of hide and seek in which the girls ran away to hide around the house, and the penalty for being discovered was a kiss. It was a small house, and they were easily discovered. As the only boy I was kept busy. Christmas was educational for me. It left me with a lifelong obsession with women hiding in closets.
Being the only male child in the house I was treated as very special, and I believed I was. This delusion has now passed, but it was nice while it lasted. I was showered with small but tantalizing gifts. My parents had told me a rather improbable story about the delivery system for these gifts, involving a very fat man and a very narrow fireplace. But this just enhanced the excitement. Would he get stuck? Would he get roasted, because the fire burned night and day? The very possibility made it worth staying awake all night.
This sounds like nostalgia I know, and why not? Nostalgia is harder to come by later in life. We don’t cherish memories of our first heart bypass or our second divorce. But a child’s Christmas is so distant, so strange, and so magical as to be almost unreal. Only Mr. Scrooge himself could begrudge us a little nostalgia at this time of year. And even he, on Christmas Eve, had a change of heart when the ghost of Christmas Past showed Scrooge his own memories of Christmas long ago.
Hang on to those memories, and have a very Happy Christmas.
Copyright: David Bouchier