Perhaps the Christmases of our childhood always seem brighter, shinier and more tinsel-strewn than in reality they could ever have been.
Brought up in a patch of the Midlands that you may have driven through but are unlikely to have stopped at, I have recollections of Christmas holidays that were reassuringly the same from one year to the next. They were full of family traditions and, usually, happiness.
My mother loved the build-up to Christmas. The festive countdown of December was far more exciting to her than the Big Day itself, so from the start of the month Christmas Day would begin to shimmer tantalisingly on the horizon, with calendars (from their pre-chocolate era) helping us to mark off the days.
The season would begin with the unpacking of a large box of Christmas decorations. This, you have to remember, was before the age when people decorated their houses with flashing lights that transform normally quiet suburbs into outposts of Las Vegas.
There were none of those unnerving Santa mannequins dangling from upstairs windows. Front lawns would be neatly trimmed rather than festooned with bright beaming snowmen and inflatable reindeer.
This, after all, was the 1970s. For one brief period, there was a three-day week of power cuts. So if you wanted to see bright twinkly lights, you jumped in the car, drove a tortuous route to Blackpool, then sat in slow-moving tail-backs to squint at the Christmas lights along the Golden Mile. Then you sat in slow-moving tail-backs heading home wondering if so much effort had quite been worth it. Once back you knew the truth: of course it had.
At the heart of our family’s decoration collection was a papier-mâché Father Christmas figure. Unfashionably crumpled, he would stand peering at us, a large sack on his back which my mother would fill with a not-entirely-seasonal mix of Crunchie bars, Curley-Wurleys and Club Biscuits.
One year, as a disgruntled teenager, I agreed to re-paint the Santa figurine. I got out a tiny pot of scarlet Airfix paint, little used as it was there just for the red ring of the RAF insignia. I painted it badly, with the result that our old decoration still looks as if Santa once catastrophically cut himself shaving. No matter: this was the stuff of childhood and that tacky little ornament, now more than 60 years old, still gets unveiled each Christmas, tucked into an unassuming corner of our home, and he will – if I have my way – be around until I leave the planet.
These were, in other words, Christmases built on low-key but familiar rituals. As I grew older we would head into town and huddle in St Mary’s Church, Stafford, for midnight mass. Most years a flurry of noise would break out at the back of the church when the pubs finally closed and beer-breathed revellers would clatter in. Somehow it all added to the Christmas drama, and everyone took the brief disruption it created in their stride before the peace of Christmas returned.
The writer TS Eliot – one of the greatest poets of the 20th century despite the fact that his name makes an anagram of ‘toilets’ – wrote movingly about Christmas. He wrote:
‘The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder’
The past year has been one when terrible news appears to have stalked us. So many beheadings, the loss of innocent lives in the shooting down of an aircraft over Ukraine, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, random acts of terrorism in unlikely places, this week’s appalling killings in Pakistan, the Ebola epidemic – this year the world feels bleaker, darker.
At the heart of it the hope of Christmas needs perhaps to shine a little brighter. If the appalling events across the world teach us anything, it is how much people – family, friends and also complete strangers – matter and how little material goods really matter.
However grim the world sometimes seems, this Christmas let us continue in wonder.