Remembering the greatest gift

It comes but once a year -- the marvellous opportunity to shout (balanced, preferably on one toe on the topmost spike of a Norwegian spruce), in a voice to echo through whatever hills happen to be near -- that Christmas isn't a cliche.

Take just two aspects of it that immediately spring to mind: children, and the receiving of gifts.

Children and Christmas (a fact not at all spoiled by the often-bemoaned commercialization and paganisation of the festival) are as inextricably intertwined as holly and ivy, or puddings and plums (why on earth are they called "plum" puddings having every fruit in them except plums?) Some people manage to carry their child delight of Christmas into adulthood. I know one or two such and admire them inordinately -- but most of us at least partially convince ourselves that we only carry on the little familiar rituals and generosities of Christmastime for whatever children happen to be near, while we compensate ourselves for a certain disenchantment with collections of memories of how we used to love Christmas.

This store of Christmas recollections is not, I think, just washy nostalgia; it is a rather precious part of many people who live in countries where the day itself is considered special. It even amounts to poetry in some. In others it recalls one of the happiest sides of family times. For most it is something vivid and surprising: colours brighter, objects newer, fires warmer, friendships reestablished or extended. It is also a day on which, with wild pleasure, tolerant amusement or apparent dismay (depending on the character involved), silly games are played to while away the exceptionally long stretch of time between lunch and tea (someone should make a study of this odd prolongation of Christmas afternoons). I am in the first category -- one of the "wild pleasure" sort --japeries," as Chaucer might well have put it, are not only an obligatory part of any Christmas worthy of the title, but are also very good for everyone. I hope this isn't a cruel streak in me, but in my opinion the residual scrooge that lurks inside most of us at times should be routed, at least annually. "Bah humbug" is no part of a child's Christmas, and silly (the sillier the better) games are the most powerful anti-bah-and-humbug weapons going, for the very reason that they reduce even the stuffiest and shyest of us to childhood again.

Most of the best Christmas memories are childhood memories, and it's not only our own past Christmases that we carry in this bag, but an accumulation of impressions from other sources which feed our imaginations. The New Testament and Christmas carols and Nativity lays contribute all sorts of images, and Dickens has set his own unique stamp on the day. Much more recently Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales" has become something of a seasonal classic. It contains this splendid item of forgetfulness: "I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six." It hardly matters: the point is that it always snows impressively at Christmas when you're a child. And not at all when you're grown up.

J. B. Priestley recollects the "solemn antics of boyhood" in the Yorkshire city of Bradford, one Christmas Day, when he was given a football and a football shirt. He went out into the nearest field (snow-covered, of course) and spent the entire morning playing football -- by himself. "I was as solitary as Robinson Crusoe, and quite happy, grandly conscious of myself in my red-and-white stripes."

Laurie Lee is another author to have captured the mixture of sentiment, childishness, comedy and simple piety that make up the feeling called Christmas. After a night singing carols from house to house, he and the other village children (except for Boney, who is accused of spoiling their rendering of "Noel" by singing flat, and has therefore branched out on his own) arrive at the last house, belonging to Joseph the farmer. For him they sing "pure, very clear and breathless." "As Joseph was a walking He heard an angel sing: 'This night shall be the birthtime Of Christ the heavenly king. . . ."

He goes on: "And two thousand Christmases became real to us then, the houses, the halls, the places of paradise had all been visited -- the stars were bright to guide the kings through the snow -- and across the farmyard we could hear the beasts in their stalls. We were given roast apples and hot mince pies. In our nostrils were spices like myrrh, and in our wooden box, as we headed back for the village, there were golden gifts for all."

Gifts for all. I still feel that there is a true universality to Christmas. It's valuing is of one child, of course, but also of all children --us of original innocence. Everybody, at Christmas, gives gifts, wonderfully; but don't we all, having experienced it, also remember with intense enjoyment what we received that day? I don't believe this is essentially selfish. To receive, as a child, the lavishing affection of all those presents can be indifferently egocentric. But more often it is as natural and richly appreciative as gladness. Why shouldn't we remember all those Christmas gifts received -- snow, footballs, roast apples . . . even, possibly, a glimpse of some fresh, unseen brightness?

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