Belfast Telegraph

Forget the winter blunderlands, the real spirit of Christmas can be found in the simple generosity of people like Ruby

By Lindy McDowell

The overarching problem with winter wonderlands, I always think, is that the 'wonder' bit in the title tends to raise expectations somewhat.

The customer is envisaging something, well, pretty wondrous.

But wondrous is tricky to replicate with plastic and an elasticated beard.

The latest winter wonderland to hit the buffers has been a local effort in Bangor, Co Down.

Parents who'd forked out a tidy sum on the understanding that their children would be treated to a magical, wintry experience were dismayed to discover that the 'ice rink' appeared to have been constructed from non-slip plastic tiles so unyielding that the little ones pushing their penguin stabilisers around the 'ice' looked like the residents of a care home for the elderly making tentative progress on their Zimmer frames.

Santa, it's reported, was an even worse letdown.

His 'beard' had no hole for the mouth so he had to lower his entire facial hairpiece when discussing the children's wish lists. It was also very obviously elasticated.

Children will humour adult efforts at make-believe up to a point. But at some point even the elastic of illusion snaps.

"He's not real," one child is said to have cried.

Of course he's not real. The real Santa comes on Christmas Eve. But it's not unreasonable for little boys and girls (and their paying parents) to assume that his body doubles, taking up the slack in the run-up to the big delivery day, should maintain standards.

So, there goes yet another wonderland...

Oddly enough, the grotty grotto has become almost a Christmas tradition. Every year at least one of them hits the headlines as a result of ambitiously attempting to interpret the enchantment of Lapland with polystyrene snow and the odd string of fairy lights.

It would make you despair for the so-called season of goodwill.

But there are people out there doing their bit to maintain the magic.

I know this because of my recently broken shoulder (and many thanks to all who've sent such lovely cards and good wishes).

I can't believe how cramped and clumsy and uncomfortable and difficult my world has now become. And my injury is minor.

But it has given me a whole new perspective on how challenging daily life must be for people with long term disabilities.

It's not that other people are unthinking or uncaring. But as we all rush around crowded shops at this time of the year, how much thought - and space - do we give to that lady with the walking frame, the guy with the crutch, the wheelchair users?

I always try to be polite but, hands up ( well, hand up anyway), I didn't always fully consider how tricky it might be for them.

But there are gems among us. And Ruby is one of them.

Ruby was one of the checkout operators on duty at M&S at Forestside last Saturday afternoon.

I came to her till after a frankly scary circuit of the shopping centre.

Fearfully clutching my bad arm (it's in a sling), I'd had to sidestep trolleys as other distracted customers barrelled towards me. And men with baby buggies scythed a path through the shopping aisles like Ben Hur at the Colosseum.

But there were such kind people too. People who gave me sympathetic nods and lots of space. By the time I reached Ruby though, I was knackered.

Ruby was a joy.

Working a checkout at this busy time of the year must be enormously stressful. But this lady was cheery and patient, sympathetic and so, so helpful. She left me with a big smile.

And the thought that the essence of the season of goodwill is this seemingly small stuff. Gentle solicitudes. Kindliness. And a wee bit of time and care.

That's the real magic of Christmas. And I want to wish you all a good one - especially Ruby, if she reads this.

May Santa bring you all you desire.

And, in the case of the winter wonderlanders, a full refund.

Belfast Telegraph

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