Festive magic may have faded... but it's still there
Christmas is almost upon us and the geraniums are still blooming in the garden. Like Elvis in a nativity play, they are so out of place; way too much glamour for this time of year. Redolent of summer, they don't so much lift the heart as nurture unease. I should feel glad they have survived; instead there's a sense of loss. Whatever happened to the frost and snow? Why don't we see it now? But then this time of year seems to get odder as the years go by.
Ah, the Christmases of my childhood. I believed in Santa until I was five and my older brother, for reasons never explained, snuck me upstairs into our parents' bedroom one night, to show me by torchlight the as-yet-unwrapped blackboard and easel, Spirograph and Scalextric stashed under their bed, the gaudy packaging unmistakeably blinking back in the flashlight. Even then, all it took was an on-the-hop explanation from my father as to why he was helping out Santa and I believed again. There you are - magic and all perfectly rational at once. I needed to believe.
And how could I not? There was a sense of magic everywhere. I still felt it, a few years later, when I got what remains my best ever present, a record-player-in-a-briefcase. Complete with a carrying handle, for easy transport to a friend's house for an evening of immense fun, playing records. The speakers formed one side of it; the turntable the other. Genius.
It arrived with Abba's Super Trouper, which as fans will know is packed with amazing songs, including the wonderful Happy New Year. Which meant Christmas could be enjoyed safe in the knowledge that you had a brilliant and appropriately sad song up your sleeve to 1) mark the start of a new year and 2) lament the tragically imminent end of the school holidays.
The magic flickered on for years; all those moments freeze-framed in my head: the frosty December nights my dad would take us outside to ponder what star the Wise Men followed to the stable, before he'd fill buckets of water for us to throw down so we would have a good, icy slide in the morning; my dad, who thought Christmas completely overblown, making his usual modest contribution to the proceedings, placing holly from the garden on the table before Christmas dinner, checking the self-indulgence of it all; himself, the year we met, surprising me with a second present tucked inside in an even bigger red velvet box than the first gift had arrived in, all twinkly and waiting to be discovered on Christmas Day.
All those dogs and cats, adorned with tinsel and half-crazed with the aroma of turkey; the year my dad died and my brother and I walking on Christmas night through wind and rain miles to his graveside, where we both realised instantly that while he'd appreciate the gesture, he'd think we were, well, half-crazed ourselves, not to be watching TV with a glass of port; my mum getting home from hospital last year, the day before Christmas Eve, was special too. My lovely aunt, gone this year, staying in bed an extra hour last year, her eyes suffused with a kind of childish joy at the lights on the tree my brother and I had rigged up in her bedroom.
And yet ... something is definitely lost. It's not just the empty chairs round the table. Maybe it's the absurdity of a festival that now begins in September and is blasted at us for months, yet so much of what is all around us seems to be about knocking the very story, the message, that remains at the heart of it all. Angels are now a marketing tool, a ruse for flogging us more stuff. For all the blether, a time of year when people feel loneliest, when hurts feel as big as Russia.
And then on Saturday a text stops me - literally - in my tracks in a shopping centre. A dear friend reporting that her husband's scan revealed he'd been healed of serious illness. What was there had gone, despite no treatment. "Answered prayers," read the message, the silvery letters sparkling like ... frost.
Ah, frost. Or the lack of it. It's not just my memory playing tricks. There used to be night after night of frost; we'd break the ice on the barrels in the garden, look up at the stars. And all the best Christmas songs talk about snow.
Magic? The only way to truly feel it isn't with a record-player-in-a-briefcase. Or any gift. It's with loved ones, routines and, well, holding on to the belief there's something more out there.
I'm off to sling some tinsel round the cat. It won't be hard. He's been sleeping since Sunday when he spied a fat brown mouse tumbling from a sack of bird food in a garage and decided to instigate his annual festive truce. I blame the Sainsbury's ad.
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