In the latitudes in which England lies, December is often a cold month and so here we develop this huge association of Christmas and of cold, hopefully even of snow! Many a Christmas I walked or drove to the local church for the Midnight Mass service and if there was snow …… wow! Magical! We don’t really make the connection with Bethlehem and snow and frost, thinking the Middle East is always sunny and warm; we learn later in life that that is not the case. I’ve spent Christmas in Sydney in Australia, rather warm but wet that year, in New Zealand where it was warm and dry, and in Rio de Janerio, where it was amazingly hot … and humid. Wherever, “There must be turkey …. and sprouts ???” Really?? “It wouldn’t be the same without Brussel Sprouts.!” The most maligned vegetable in western cuisine, normally with any taste and colour boiled out ……. until Jamie Oliver came along and suggested roasting them with bacon. Brussel Sprouts are just another of those things in life associated with the most boring country, Belgium.
Christmas in Britain, commercial Christmas that is, starts sometimes in …… October nowadays! I resist …. and resist …… until I think at least I should dig out the box of decorations. You go up into the attic, into the garage, into the cellar or in my case, in my modern no-storage apartment, into a spare bedroom and find the Christmas decorations box.
“Uncle Tommy” shook his head. Well, he didn’t really, but as his head was attached to his body by a big spring, every time someone nudged the table, his head shook! This wonderful papier-mâchié Father Christmas, some 10 cms tall, was bought in the 1960s, but still gives enormous pleasure as he sits on the dinner table at Christmas. He was christened ‘Uncle Tommy’ as his rather red cheeks, reflecting too much sherry drunk delivering Christmas presents, reminded us of our grandfather – who also loved his sherry, amongst other tipples!
Christmas is a family celebration …. a time when everyone gets caught up on the merry-go-round of eating and drinking, stuffing the turkey and stuffing their faces, nursing hangovers and wishing it hadn’t happened. Growing up as teenagers, we had to ‘make do’ with sandwiches and wine for lunch as we opened presents, before walking the dog and sitting down in the evening to roast turkey, roast potatoes, sausages with a bacon wrap, bread sauce, Cranberry sauce …. and the dreaded Brussel sprouts. This was followed of course by Christmas pudding, a wonderful sweet concoction of dried fruits, eggs, suet and spices, laced with Brandy during its manufacture to ensure it matured properly, accompanied by Brandy Butter. Before the pudding was brought into the dining room, hot brandy was poured over it and set alight. Uncle Tommy simply nodded his head – he’d seen it many, many times.
Of course, we all believed in Father Christmas and of his way of delivering presents by climbing down one’s chimney. So at the bottom we would put a plate – a couple of mince pies and a small glass of sherry for him, a couple of carrots for Rudolph. Dave Allen had a one-man evening comedy show on television in the 1980s and 1990s. In his wonderful glorious Irish brogue, he would talk irreverently about every single aspect of Christmas, religious or otherwise. He mused that if Santa drank all the sherry and ate all the mince pies he found at the bottom of every chimney, he would have exploded ……. And that Rudolph certainly wouldn’t have got airborne with tons of carrots inside his tummy! He also had a few things to say about the party hats in crackers and about bringing a tree into one’s house!
One year he brought a rather modern look to the story of Bethlehem and that stable. He reckoned Joseph was a pretty disorganised husband. Mary: “What do mean, there’s no room in the inn?” “Well,” says Joseph, “I thought it would be OK.” “What? OK? The whole nation is on the move, back to our home towns, and you didn’t think to book a room? And you see this”, says Mary, pointing to her huge pregnant belly, “that’s our baby, due any day now. And you didn’t book a room …….. and we have to make do…… in a stable?!!” You could imagine at this stage a modern woman would have sworn, possibly using a word beginning with ‘J’, but then you’d be getting ahead of the story
I spent a couple of Christmases in Northern Ireland when the IRA were fighting for some form of independence, firstly in Londonderry in 1973 and then in north Armagh in 1975. They were dangerous times but we still recognised Christmas; dinner was roast turkey, Brussel sprouts (!) and Christmas pudding served by the officers to the soldiers. The Miss World organisation, through Julia Morley, delivered 400 stockings to our regiment, with packets of cigarettes, sweets, playing cards and I think the latest copy of Penthouse, a Men-Only raunchy magazine. I’ll leave it to your imagination how the soldiers enjoyed the contents of the stockings! On Christmas Eve in 1973 I went up to the border, to visit some of my soldiers on patrol. A Baptist minister, let’s call him Desmond as my memory is too dim (!), attached to the regiment for the length of the tour, accompanied me. The sentry and I stood in a static observation post, looking out over the dark, frosty countryside, whilst Desmond talked softly about the meaning of Christmas; one of those memories that stays with you all your life!
The flaming Brandy on the pudding reminds me that one year in Kitzbuhel, in Austria, the real candles that decorated the Christmas tree flamed in the draught from a window … and the tree caught fire! You only do these sort of mad things once huh?
It’s been suggested I start a ‘blogg’, but I thought these were for the really really mundane …….. not just my simple mundane scribbles and thoughts. I wonder?
Richard Yates – firstname.lastname@example.org