It’s funny – or rather not at all funny – how we change as we get older.
I’m now 54 and I look back at my eight-year-old self waking up to my best-ever Christmas present. It was a sledge given to me in a year when, miraculously, it snowed on Christmas Day. I look at young Geoffrey and think: ‘Where is he now?’
As we get older, of course we change physically. The other day someone showed me the Bury Free Press picture from when I was appointed headteacher at King Edward VI School. They noted the unmissable truth - that back in 2002 I had a reasonable head of hair, whereas by our fifties, as Billy Crystal so brilliantly said in the film City Slickers, “I’m losing hair where I want hair and getting hair where there shouldn’t be hair”.
This, as we learnt from another film (The Lion King) is what we might call a Circle of Life kind of thing. We get older. We change. And not just physically.
Psychologically, I find now that I crave a sense of life being simpler, less cluttered, far less complicated. The idea of a sledge for Christmas, a timely sprinkling of snow, and family around me: this would do me as nicely now as it did back in those innocent eight-year-old days.
I no longer crave new gadgets or complicated social arrangements, a Christmas teeming in busyness. I like simplicity.
We see the same mood in the works of the authors I teach in my English lessons. Shakespeare’s last play – The Tempest – is possibly the only story the playwright made up himself rather than borrowing from history or other writers. It’s a beguilingly simple story of an old man on an island with his daughter, looking back on his life, reflecting on who he has become.
Lots of the writers I really like – Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, Anne Tyler – end up writing later works which are far less flashy, less attention-seeking, than their earlier texts.
And so it is with Christmas.
I’m writing this the morning after our school’s annual Celebration of Christmas at St Edmundsbury Cathedral. It’s one of the best evenings in our school’s long-standing calendar. Last night, around 140 students attended, plus more than 400 proud parents, carers and grandparents.
It was a momentous evening, because alongside our Sixth Form veterans were the new recruits – the 11- and 12-year olds performing for the first time. When a choir of twenty boys – memorably known as No Girls Aloud – performed, the Cathedral pews were filled with people hastily seeking tissues. It was pure emotion.
After listening to children singing their hearts out, Canon Matthew Vernon, who led our celebrations, reminded us that at the heart of Christmas is a single child.
Here, at the end of a turbulent year, when I think of the image of a child, I now see that little boy in Syria last summer sitting caked in dust, shell-shocked and traumatised from the war raging around him. And more than a year on I still can’t erase from my memory that heartbreaking image of tiny Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on to a beach on the island of Kos, his family doing what all of us would try to do in desperate circumstances – escaping to a better life. Alan’s life ended on that beach.
All the more reason to strip my Christmas back to its essentials – gratitude for how lucky I am, empathy for far too many in the world living through terrible lives, and determination that in my role as headteacher I might help the next generation of young people to do better than my generation to put right some of these terrible wrongs.
The idea of a stripped-down Christmas has at its heart something overpoweringly simple yet much-needed: hope. Happy Christmas.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds