ON THE BEST THINGS ABOUT CHRISTMAS WHILE A CHILD
I had a particularly enjoyable Thanksgiving this year—thanks to the kindness of friends—but Christmas still remains a very special time for me. I regard Thanksgiving as a wonderful holiday, but I’m Irish and didn’t grow up with it—and one’s childhood experiences of such events tend to leave lasting impressions.. In my case, they are particularly favorable where Christmas is concerned.
This is strange in a way because if there is one thing I associate with Christmas Day, it is that my mother would somehow or other generate a major row. Normally, the overt reason was because she felt slighted in some way—being given an inadequate Christmas present was the standard excuse—but really it was because she felt she wasn’t the center of attention. This was a volatile woman who demanded to be the center of attention at all times. Quite where her insecurities came from I don’t know because I adored my grandmother—but they were manifest. I suspect my grandmother was better at public service and doing good works than being a mother—but she was a sensational grandmother.
My grandmother’s greatest error seems to have been inflicting two French governesses in succession on my mother instead of sending her to school. Since my grandmother had had a governess also, this probably seemed like the right thing to do—but it was a disastrous failure that was followed by a lifetime of hostility.
I was to meet either one or both of my mother’s French governesses later on in life—they were both so similar I am never quite sure whether I met one twice, or the two once—and I have to say my sympathy, for a change, was with my mother. But, to be fair, she—my mother—learned to speak impeccable French. My grandmother and my mother normally rowed in French.
Every family has its customs.
Still, my happy memories of Christmas outweigh the less pleasant by far—and here I’m talking about the whole period and not just Christmas Day.
Christmas, while I was child, meant:
- The end of the longest boarding school term. Let me stress ‘boarding.’ Apart from the discipline and harshness of the environment—which was enforced with some ferocity through a wide range of punishments from writing lines to being beaten—it was affection free. One has to wonder about the cumulative effects of that—and I was at boarding school from the age of five. The idea was to toughen us up and prepare us for the rigors of helping to run the (fast vanishing) British Empire (public schools were expensive and private but ‘public’ meant one was being prepared for public service). Most of us were taken out by our parents several times a term. A fortunate few went home at weekends. I was neither taken out, nor able to go home. I felt I was in a prison—and never became reconciled to it—though I excelled academically. Thankfully, it was in a prison that gave me an excellent education. Matters were made rather worse by the fact that from the age of nine, though we lived in Ireland, I was sent to boarding school in Britain. Typically, it was 13 long weeks—and I loathed it—so its end was a marvelous thing. After the September term was over, I tended to think I could survive another school year. The Easter term was short and featured athletics—which I enjoyed (instead of rugby) and the Summer term meant the long vacation that was to follow—and cricket. I mildly enjoyed cricket and was quite a good bowler, but—if we were batting—primarily liked lying in the equipment box out of the chill of the wind—and reading. The audio background was normally a combination of cricket and automatic weapons fire. As part of our military training, we tended to practice with Bren guns (light machine guns) on the outdoor range in the summer, so when I hear machinegun fire I think of cricket and vice-versa. I retain a certain fondness for the Bren gun—a truly excellent weapon, if too heavy.
- A month to five weeks of vacation at home. We had unusually long Christmas holidays for some reason. I seem to recall not having to go back to school until late January. I guess having a short Easter term was the school’s way of dealing with the rather harsh winters in Yorkshire. Sometimes it snowed which I thoroughly enjoyed. When it snowed, there were no compulsory games so we could do what we wanted. That was a rare privilege in an environment where every minute was normally scripted. The word ‘freedom’ has a special significance as far as I am concerned.
- Actually being at home. Apart from being at boarding school, typically I was packed off to aunts at Easter, and to my grandmother in the Summer, so I was actually at home rather little. This stemmed, I suppose, from my difficult relationship with my mother. We never discussed it. I just went where I was sent the way children do—and life with my aunts, and my grandmother, was actually a great deal more pleasant than home. But, I liked being home—despite its many disadvantages—at Christmas.
- The sheer excitement of the countdown to Christmas. There is a great buzz in Dublin at Christmastime. The Irish are social anyway, and particularly so during Christmas. After I arrived home, I would take the Number 10 bus from Donnybrook Church—always sitting up front on top—and travel into Grafton Street, the main up-market shopping street, in a haze of pleasure. To be free of school was magic in itself. To be free at Christmas was heaven.
- Family. I am the eldest of 12 so have always spent a great deal of time looking after the younger ones even though we had maids. I was changing diapers from the age of four. I was about to write that I didn’t look after my sister, Maxine, much because she is too close to me in age—but I then remembered going rambling when I was five and Maxine a year and a half younger—and losing her while watching a house on fire nearby. I searched for her desperately for quite a time and then ran home convinced that she had been burned to death in the fire. Poor Maxine! How would I explain this? Careless to lose a sister at the best of times—but in a fire! I might have worried less if I had known I would have five more. I was very fond of Maxine, who was a cuddly blond thing in those days, and just felt sick. There, of course—having found her own way back—was Maxine. My relief was overwhelming. Why were we allowed out alone at such a young age? My mother had a distinctive approach to parenting—with neglect featuring prominently along with terrifying mood swings and violence. There was so much discord at home, because of my mother, that I tend not to think of the word ‘family’ in the warm and fuzzy way many people do. But in fact I adored my step-father, and most of my siblings except or my brother, Rex—who always wanted to be the eldest! I particularly loved looking after “the babies” as the youngest eight tended to be called—long after they were babies. In fact, I love babies and young kids generally to this day. I’m not so sure about teenagers.
- Buying presents. It’s a somewhat arcane talent, but I have always been pretty good at buying gifts for people. I had to get it right for my mother—or get a hard slap in the face—so I learned early to put considerable thought into the process. Being observant and empathetic helped as well.
- Parties. We were—compared to most Irish at the time—wealthy, had a big house, and so did most of our friends, so we both gave and went to quite exceptional parties—and these were backed up by a high level of sociability. That meant that there were practically always interesting people coming to the house. The place was cold and drafty—apart from adult areas the house was largely unheated, and the food at home was worse than at school, but alcohol flowed in profusion from the time my mother came downstairs from her bedroom—around midday—to when she went to bed—typically well after midnight. She would start the day with sherry and finish it with brandy.
- Friends. Living in Ireland and being sent to boarding school in Britain has always created some problems with school friends because they mostly lived in Britain. Still, I had a few friends left over from my Irish boarding—and a couple of good friends who also lived in Ireland but were schooled in Yorkshire. Later, girls entered the vacation picture—but that is another story.
- Movies. We saw a movie a week at boarding school so I tended to feel movie deprived by the vacations. We had no TV at home, so I would make up for it, particularly at Christmas, both by using my saved up pocket-money, and because I normally received some money for Christmas itself.
- Reading. As I have stated elsewhere, I was a serious bookworm (by which I mean fanatical), and regarded school as an interruption to my reading. While at home, I would typically read for at least half the day—and often longer. This meant I would go through a book every couple of days—or faster. It also meant a great deal of time in libraries and scouring second-hand book stores. Book browsing remains one of my favorite activities..
- Christmas Day itself. Presents at home weren’t put under a Christmas tree, but instead were put at the foot of one’s bed. This meant you were so excited you couldn’t get to sleep—but fell asleep anyhow—and awoke to the even more exciting prospect of unwrapping a number of presents. In my case, there were always books so I would be content to read until Christmas lunch which was always held just after the Queen’s speech—which was delivered at 3.00 pm. The woman is a terrible speaker and quite why we listened to that I don’t know. My mother had no interest in politics at all (except she never really accepted Irish independence). As for lunch itself, I don’t associate Christmas with vast amounts of food—probably because there were so many of us—but I particularly enjoyed watching the plum pudding be set on fire, and I retain a passion for brandy butter.
Later on in life, I am delighted to say that both the women I have lived with, and my children, have all had a talent for making Christmas special—and my daughter, Evie, raised it to an art form.
The combination of children and Christmas is such fun that if children didn’t exist, they would have to be invented.
But one of the best things about Christmas, when I was kid, was the fact that after Christmas, I didn’t have to go back to boarding school for four glorious weeks. I don’t have quite the same enthusiasm for January these days. It means facing up to real life, and I’m not sure I have a talent for that.
As an adult, I have spent a few lonely Christmases alone—but I have normally retained the spirit regardless of my circumstances.
As for the grossly excessive commercialism, I filter that out insofar as it is possible—together with sundry memories of in-laws—and I have certainly become much less materialistic as I have become older. Going through the belongings of people after they have died really rams home how little ‘stuff’ matters (providing you have the basics). I had to do that twice in a short period a few years ago and the impression has lingered.
Most of what really matters is intangible—but does anything really matter? I prefer to think that it does..
One of the things I like to do best these days is write to friends—and here I don’t just mean send cards. It may seem an odd pleasure at a time of year when most emphasis is placed upon face-to-face sociability—but the combination of writing and Christmas is nearly as good as it gets, as far as this particular writer is concerned.
So what is missing?
I’m sure you will be able to work that out—which prospect should make 2015 an interesting year.
You know, one of the things I like best about life—and despite my bizarre upbringing I like a great deal about life—is that it is a story—and there are few greater pleasures than an interesting story full of twists and turns and surprises.
My life—full of struggles, setbacks, successes and some exceptional friends rarely disappoints in such regard. And I have been very lucky with lovers, though less so with wives. But if at first you don’t succeed—so much for skydiving.
I love to write.
VOR word 2,116.