The appearance of a flyer on my front doormat on the first of October made me realise how very much Christmas has become degraded. A local restaurant was advertising Christmas lunches and dinners at reasonable rates, presumably to kick off about now, I haven’t checked because it is not Christmas yet. Christmas for the elderly is not the same as it was when they were able to prepare a spread for anything up to fifteen people. For a start they had control, but in a way that induced anticipation, pleasure and the prospect of enjoyment for the whole family.
But I want to go further back than that, I want to go back to my childhood, and that of my children, both of which were so terribly different to the childhood and Christmases of today. Christmas really didn’t start until the beginning of December, didn’t reach its full enriched colour and excitement until a few days before Christmas. It was at this point that the paper chains were made at the kitchen table out of packets of strips of coloured paper, stuck together with a wet sponge, lists of presents were made and secrets exchanged. It must be remembered that small children would be taken shopping at about four o’clock, on the last Saturday before Christmas. It was relatively dark until one reached the shops on the High Road, and Christmas descended on you in a blaze of colour and light. This would have been the first foray to find Christmas presents. There would have to be another foray with another member of the family to help choose a present for the one who was taking the child on that Saturday – no secrets no fun. These trips, of course, had to include a visit to see Santa at one of the two grottos on offer. The adults thought the present was rubbish, and inevitably not worth the money, but to the child it had a significance that was worth the money. These trips involved a tremendous amount of trooping from shop to shop, breathing on the windows, watching demonstrations of new toys, and trains going through tunnels, under bridges stopping and starting. There was an unspoken understanding between adult and child of what was possible and what was beyond the budget for all of them. So the trip generally started at Woolworths and worked up, and something was bought for every member of the family, bar the one conducting.
For the young children Christmas was an encapsulation; it was a bubble in which everything was coloured by the coming event and all the preparations that went before. All the time, in conversations with other children, with the decoration of the school rooms, the end of term party, the excitement and anticipation steadily grew, culminating at some absurd hour in the morning when the child crawled to the end of the bed and lifted its stocking in the dark, and tried to envisage what each lump inside the stocking held. He or she knew that the big lump wrapped in Christmas paper was a piece of coal, I believed that strangely if that had been missing the child would have been disappointed because that was an extra parcel from Santa, which made it special, and unwrapping was as much part of the fun as the receipt of the gift from Santa. A lot of the contents of the stocking were predictable and traditional but there were always lovely surprises of little intrinsic worth, but a tremendous amount of pleasure to the child, especially the ones that still believed in Santa, which gave the presents an aura they would not have otherwise have had. To maintain the fiction the adults hung their stockings across the kitchen fireplace, and they received things that would give the children amusement on Christmas morning, when the recipient feigned horror.
Now it’s time for Scrooge and his traditional complaint. I think it is difficult to find a shop with trains running round, or young students demonstrating new toys, and everything laid out from tiny replicas to dolls’ prams, cycles, scooters and all the other dreams that would not materialise on Christmas morning, but which on the shopping expeditions fostered a vague hope. Catalogues, the Internet. and all the other sources today, where commercialisation has taken a shortcut to wealth, is at the expense of the dreams of the child. Some people call me an old .., and you can fill that in as you like, and your vocabulary permits, but I really do find it sad that such incredible pleasure for so many days, that cost nothing and was available to all, rich and poor, like many of the other traditions and folklore, has been overridden by progress, Christmas is now extended over so many weeks, even months, that repetition leads to boring familiarity and devaluation.