Thursday, 21 December 2017

After Five Decades of Christmas...

The earliest Christmas I can remember would have been on the farm in rural Warwickshire, the house heated by just one open fireplace. I came down the stairs, into the front room, and my parents were both sat on the couch awaiting my arrival with a little stack of presents.

'This is Huckleberry,' said my mother by way of introduction to a triangular dog. He was covered in orange felt, with eyes, nose, and freckles picked out in black and white patches of material. He had long flappy ears hung from the apex of his peculiar triangular body and a tail sewn on at the back. I thought he was wonderful. I recall him as being about three or four feet in height, most likely because I was small at the time. He probably wasn't that big, and I may have been as young as four. It's strange to realise I can recall something which probably happened in the sixties, and a time when my parents were still in their twenties.

I understood Christmas as the day of getting free stuff, possibly because, birthdays aside, we didn't get free stuff at other times of year. Childhood as a couple of decades spent happily beneath an avalanche of consumer goods seems to be a more recent development. Of course, I also understood the true meaning of Christmas as it's sometimes known, because I'd been raised to understand that not being an arsehole was a year-round deal, not just an act to be trotted out when you wanted something. I never bought into Father Christmas or the currency of any lists he supposedly kept. I appreciated the ceremony and the build up, everyone generally being a bit less miserable than usual and Slade on the radio. At school we sang carols - none of your happy clappy rubbish, and certainly no having yourself a merry little Christmas or any of that pish - and we made Christmas trees, Santas or snowmen from cones of coloured paper and tinsel like they'd done on Blue Peter, and all in preface to a wonderful day of good food, rampant acquisition, and usually something which you wouldn't ordinarily get to see on the telly. It was a simple, uncomplicated pleasure and served as an axis around which the rest of the year revolved.

The next decade was much the same, only with central heating in a different house and Micronaut toys giving way to albums by David Bowie or the Ramones; then an acoustic guitar and books about art, the great painters of the twentieth century.

The two decades after that saw a steady decline in my enthusiasm for the day of getting free stuff. This was because I had a job. I was a postman. People in England complain that Christmas starts too early, usually about half way through September, which is when its approach is first heralded in the larger department stores. For those delivering mail, it begins earlier, usually around June, that being when we'd be inundated with the first mail order catalogues directed at people spreading their Christmas budget across the second half of the year. The junk mail was horrendous in both its quantity and its banality, as customarily printed in garish colour on the outside of each A4 envelope and targetted at those with the least money to spend. Trudging about in the wind and rain with those same shitty envelopes, day after day, week after week, became really depressing. The most hateful were sent by a company imaginatively named Studio as though to invoke things of great artistic beauty which might come your way if you just kept up the payments. Each year, Studio decorated its envelopes with a different cast of characters designed to coerce you into buying their cheap tat, and worst of all were the Santa Babes, basically Care Bears in Christmassy hats, frolicking and trowelling on the corporate saccharine with the sort of abandon that makes Frozen look like cinéma vérité. The Santa Babes made me feel bad for everyone involved. There was something faintly disgusting about older and probably not that bright people screwed out of their meagre savings by directed application of cartoons from a nursery wall. It reminded me of the old biologists reduced to animals in tiny cages with just a bit of straw, renamed Big Ears and Tigger and fed on slops in Troy Kennedy Martin's
harrowing television adaptation of The Old Men at the Zoo.

The Christmas advertising really kicked in at the close of August, and the volume of mail began to build around November, becoming a back-breaking deluge by the end of the month. Overtime would be dished out whether we wanted it or not, and an eight hour day of hard physical labour would stretch to eleven or twelve, leaving for work at five in the morning, getting home hours after sunset, six days a week, sometimes seven for that final week; and working on Christmas Eve, finishing around one or two then spending the rest of the day crammed onto buses and trains slowly crawling across London, making my way to Coventry, to the house of one parent or another when I'd much rather have been home in bed and sleeping through the whole fucking thing.

It was hard to keep up the Christmas spirit after all those Santa Babes, all those weeks of ending each day feeling as though I'd been run over by a truck; and Christmas with the parents felt stranger and stranger as I turned thirty, then forty. Nevertheless, it was nice to see my parents, albeit seperately, and it was nice to just not be at work, and to have someone else serve up a roast dinner; and those are the aspects of Christmas I like.

Now fifty-two, married, and no longer breaking my back for a living, there are still aspects of the whole deal which seem uneccessary and tiresome. We'll spend three hours watching the boy open presents he probably isn't actually that excited to receive, novelties and nick-nacks and crap mostly representing a faintly dippy adult's idea of what a fourteen-year old boy might want, when mostly he just wants non-physical things he can play on one of his games systems; and some of the novelties and nick-nacks will be more the sort of thing you'd give him if he were still about four, but we all smile and no-one says anything because we're just happy to have dispensed with the letter from Santa and the fake bootprints across the carpet using flour to simulate snow. He was getting a bit old for it at least seven years prior to the custom's discontinuation.

Then there'll be the novelty corn holders my wife recieves each year as part of a running joke she no longer entirely gets or remembers, and all that stuff for which we'll say oh you shouldn't have, because we quite literally wish that you hadn't - a set of novelty pint glasses featuring scenes from A Christmas Story and other items which lack any context beyond that of gifthood, all destined for some corner of the garage so we don't have to think about them or feel bad for the rest of our curmudgeonly, ungrateful lives.

We've all agreed to participate in the gift exchange through the agency of Elfster, a website which takes our names, shakes them up, then assigns each of us the person upon whom we will each spend one hundred dollars, selecting presents from their online list. It's not a bad idea, all things considered, although I can't help feel it sucks the spontaneity out of the occasion, reducing it to just acquisition, the model to which I subscribed when I was four and didn't know better.

Christmas is mostly greed and flashing lights, and in Texas it doesn't even come with a guarantee of the parts I recognise. Thanksgiving steals the emphasis from anything I'd identify as Christmas dinner, and without equivalent gastronomic pleasure, it being a plate of mostly soft brown food - turkey served with mashed potato for God's sake - which screams nursing home, at least to me; and then we get to see what Elfster brought us on a day which usually isn't Christmas, because it isn't convenient.

Regardless of all of this, I'll open a few presents on Christmas morning and watch my wife open whatever I've given her. I'll eat some of the pork pie I had to make myself because you can't get it in Texas unless you want to pay $70 for refrigerated postage. The Christmas morning pork pie is either an English tradition, or just something my dad thought up, but I like to keep it going and I make a pretty decent pork pie. Then we'll maybe go for a walk or a drive, and in the evening I'll cook a roast dinner with Christmas pudding and brandy butter to follow - more stuff I had to order online because you can't get it over here.

After fifty-one reiterations of the allegedly happiest day of the year, these basic things are all that I require, and none of the rest matters too much.

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