Every year in the run up to Christmas, there are articles published declaring that Christmas has become too commercialised, lost its magic, become an empty ritual. I usually skip reading them. People declare they don’t want presents or confess they are not getting anything for adults. As my mother, who lived to be 92 and loved Xmas used to ask, ‘When was it decided you could be too old to receive a present?’
I think your attitude depends on your early experiences and the bounds of your imagination for presents need not be about money but depend on the fact that you have given time and thought into people you love and like. Christmas was a very special time when I was growing up in my extended working-class family when my brother and I shared our terraced house not only with our parents but with our maternal grandparents and great grandpa.
We were encouraged to save our pennies to buy or make presents for all those adults. We were introduced early to the pleasures of giving. Thus, pooling our resources we might buy apple blossom talc for our mother, chocolate for our sweet-toothed grandmother, a record for our dad, help make paper spills for our grandad to light the fire and get pipe cleaners for our grampa’s pipe.
As for ourselves, we were spoilt by having so many adults in the family to spend their hard-earned cash on us from working in the mine and storeroom, shop counter and from their pensions. We were not rich. By any standard, we were typically working class and so started buying a few months in advance with the aim of forgetting any woes for a few special days.
There was always one big present and a sack of smaller things from clothes to toys to sweets. The big present was always something you really wanted but in ordinary circumstances you could not ask for because it would be asking too much. On these occasions you could dream big. Some of those presents still make me smile when I think of them; my bike (my trusty steed), my first typewriter (used henceforth for the street newsletter and making ‘presents’), and the Collected Works of Shakespeare (which lasted me over forty years before disintegrating). Before you think my family were big spenders, both the bike and the typewriter were second hand but expertly painted by my mother’s skilful hands gleamed like newly minted coins next to the parlour’s loaded couch.
The sad difference with today is that through advertising, peer pressure and expectations, children expect more than we ever did, and the key difference is that the men of the family were all in work. With people now depending on food banks to get by, for many, Christmas is a worry and a nightmare.
Before my mother died, two years ago, I would take my mother shopping to the supermarket and organisers from the food bank would give out a list of things needed. By the time we got to the checkout, she would have added all of the items to her basket.
‘You are not expected to give all of them,’ I would say.
‘Yes, but I know what it is like to be poor,’ she would answer.
‘You are poor,’ I would add.
‘Not so poor I can’t help,’ she would reply. ‘I have put some luxuries in too. Everyone needs more than basics.’
This was very Shakespearian of her: ‘Allow not nature more than nature needs – man’s life is cheap as beasts’ or words to that effect. My mother understood something very important about poverty which was that even the poorest of the poor need something beyond basics for a taste of happiness. I must admit her words sent me scurrying to add more to my own basket.
However, take note of this. It was not the presents which give me warmest memories of Christmas. It was my father keeping us busy on Christmas eve through a cinema trip or retelling of films he had seen in his youth. This was unusual as we rarely spent time with him alone except at holidays as he worked nights in the colliery. It was the mood of the women with the kitchen door firmly shut and from behind it wafted music from the radio and laughter as the women sipped cheap sherry and wrapped presents.
We were allowed to open one annual to read in bed, a present from one of our aunts. We hardly slept after my father put out the light warning that he thought he could hear Santa’s bells on the roof. In the early hours the men would light the fires and my grandpa would shout up: ‘He’s been. He’s been.’ Everyone was in good spirits because this was a holiday when everyone was at home in our raucous household and you could drift from the kitchen where the radio was blasting out, past the middle room where the television was on, to the parlour where our father treated the street to his new records. Sometimes my father would croon along and dance a few steps with my mother or more likely she would dance through the passage with her father who was as light and graceful as Fred Astaire.
The presents were exciting, but they were not the main event. We looked forward to meeting up with our wider family and on Christmas afternoon we walked to my Aunty Mary’s to enjoy high tea, charades and my favourite, the ring game. In the ring game, everyone sat in a circle holding a cord on which was threaded a ring. Someone sat in the middle and while music played the ring was passed around and when the music stopped the piggy in the middle had to guess. My grandfather and uncles used to put people off by pretending to pass it at the wrong times. It was such fun to see the adults behaving badly.
Then, on Boxing Day was the most exciting trip of all, as after lunch the family caught the bus to the seaside town of Porthcawl with more family members joining as the bus travelled down the valley. We were off to visit Aunty Nan and Uncle Eddie who had a fancy house on the sea front and while older people were given a lift from the bus station, the rest of us walked around the arc of the bay, the sea dark and thrashing in its hollow curve. In the window of our destination, looking out to sea was a large Christmas tree which one year my brother knocked over in a game of tag but Uncle Eddie, full of largesse, said it didn’t matter despite my mother’s disapproving look. Then there would be recitations and singing, the women sipping Babysham, the men on the beer before plunging out into the dark and taking the bus home.
My memories sound Dickensian but then that cunning, scrutinising, empathising, thought-provoking, metaphor squeezing, talented old word-pleaser, clear-headed as iced-sheets, defiant, disaffected and delirious as a boy released from a shoe-blacking factory, died only six years before my great grandpa was born. His books adorned the dresser in the kitchen where they stood in their blue and gold jackets. This Christmas I can’t help but think that many of our ‘leaders’ in the UK could do with re-reading A Christmas Carol and hearing Joseph Marley’s chains.
You could say these memories are just nostalgia and there is that element to it all, but those early experiences taught me a great deal. I know I was very lucky. Of course, families don’t all live in the same towns so much these days and it’s true that my generation and subsequent ones have scattered around the globe. But family in the widest sense is important and the role of wider family in bringing up children is now better understood.
My working-class family taught me to seize the day, to make sacrifices for others, to understand that giving is more important than receiving and to be generous in your giving. They taught us the role of treats for ourselves and others which were so important for people who worked in arduous jobs. My parents, poor as they were, gave extra to charity at Christmas and made sure people on their own had a present or a visit.
This year, I am in America with my daughter’s family and on Xmas afternoon we will video call with our wider family, and yes, we may well play charades, have a quiz, wear funny hats. The ring game is sadly off the menu. If we can pass on half of the joie de vivre and boundless generosity of our ancestors, I will be happy. Let everyone have a present and may that present show love and thought. God bless us, every one!