Having been brought up having to go to church every Sunday during childhood, the religious aspect of Christmas is something that will never be far away from me so long as I am still alive. In my first three years of primary school, I recall the school having close links with the Church of England church at the end of the road – which I also recall had close links with the local cubs, scouts, brownies and guides. At the end of my three years in the ‘infants’ section (what would now be known as reception & years 1 & 2) our former headmistress retired. She had been at the school for so long that in a local history project we found photographs dating back from the Second World War that featured her…as a teacher.
Those years in the mid-late 1980s are ones I still see through a surreal lens. In those days, the early years at my school had a number of children stayed around until the age of around seven when they all seemed to leave for one reason or another. As it turned out a number of them either moved away or were transferred to local private schools. The moving away of those friends at such a young age in part adds to the mystique of events that today I can only recall glimpses of, or the first names of people whose names are but echos of a distant past that gets further and further away as each second passes.
Some of the venues where we had those infant school Christmas parties no longer exist – a community hall that once served the school as part school dining hall, part sports hall and part theatre is now a series of apartments. The links between the school and established church & other related institutions such as cubs & scouts also diminished under the auspices of a new headmaster – who lacked the musical background of his predecessor. Less the teacher, more the administrator, less the traditionalist, more the moderniser…with a bit of PC gawn mad. (The ban on felt-tipped pens & the ban on bubble writing being the most colourful of examples).
In my final years of primary school we were lucky to have a couple of musically-trained teachers and volunteers who between them managed to organise memorable Christmas concerts. I have no idea what they sounded like from an audience perspective as being both a violinist and a recorder player (pestering my way to getting hold of a tenor rather than the dog whistle that is a plastic descant) I was one of a handful of children who had to jump from a seat with my classmates to a seat with the recorder group to a seat in the orchestra. (Kids and attention…)
The ghosts of Christmases as secondary school were as harsh as the run down buildings that have since been demolished. The bubble of primary school was no longer there and the differences between what church and those within demanded vs the realities of the world outside.
Leaving Cambridge for university put me in an environment where the barriers and boundaries of ‘home’ were no longer there. A philosophical and emotional awakening as well as the onset of the mental health problems that I’ve referred to in previous blogposts. It was at this time that I came to the view that:
- I did not subscribe to the church’s interpretation of ‘the first Christmas’
- I had come to despise the commercialisation of Christmas
- I was of the view that neither myself nor those around me could afford the above
- I’m not particularly partial to traditional Christmas roasts
- As far as music and television is concerned, same stuff, different year
On the first point, there’s only so far a person can pretend to believe in something that in their heart of hearts they don’t. Breaking away from a lifetime of ‘belonging’ to an institution is never an easy one.
On all of the other points, the issue is one of enjoyment. As an adult, I asserted the point of not wanting to take part in stuff I no longer enjoyed. I can’t pretend that the alternative was particularly better – isolating myself from the outside world in those early years to living as if it were any other time of year. This included asking people not to buy me anything for Christmas and saying that I was not planning on buying Christmas presents either – and telling them early on. (Managing expectations y’see).
The only occasions during my ‘roaring 20s’ I recall doing anything vaguely Christmassy all involved going to ballroom balls. The first is described in my blogpost Ballroom – with no “strictly” anywhere. The second was when a small group of us went to Switzerland to the Polyball in Zurich about a year before I took the Fast Stream Assessment Centre. The final one a couple of years later was where a larger group of us went to Vienna for the New Year’s Kaiserball at the Hofburg – the old imperial palace of the former Austro-Hungarian Emperors. On each of those occasions, I was doing something that I enjoyed that was also not burdened by ghosts of times gone by. Those Central European winters were noticeably different to the crass commercialisation of what I’m used to. A bearded two-legged mouse with big ears and a red coat bringing gifts of carbonated sugar water laced with alcohol?
Throughout the last decade, I’ve been of the mindset that there’s nothing materially that anyone could give me for Christmas that I did not already want for or need. That still remains the case today – though I’m still partial to a bargain in the January sales. The difference being that I don’t feel particularly tied to the selling cycle of the high street. I’m cool with that. I don’t feel particularly tied to what TV or radio says is entertainment. Again, I’m cool with that – and anyway, ‘on demand’ services and digital media means that people are no longer tied to the schedule-writers.
Now that a new generation within my extended family, family dynamics have altered. I may be a bit of a Scrooge/Bah! Humbug type when it comes to the details of Christmas, but for me, Christmas isn’t about receiving stuff, buying stuff, going to church or overindulging. It’s about giving to each other in a manner that makes the short time we spend on this planet that little bit better for those around us. Giving can be about where we are and what we do – not just about the passing over of gifts purchased on the high streets.
And that’s what it is for me.