It was important to hold onto Christmas for as long as possible. One year, maybe 1985, this meant listening to choral evensong on the radio on all the holy days from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day. There was Christmas, then Saint Stephen’s Day on the 26th; Saint John the Evangelist on the 27th; the Holy Innocents on the 28th; and then there is a gap in the memory until the 31st, Saint Sylvester; followed by the Circumcision on New Year’s Day. Not being the greatest fan of choral music, it wasn’t a particularly exciting way of spending an hour each day, and, of course, it did nothing to prevent the passing of time; it maybe even hastened its going by, days being ticked off in quick succession.
The radio listening was a throwback to a wish during childhood days that Christmas would go on and on and on.
Christmas in school would never start until the last week of term, but it was observed in grand style. There was a Christmas dinner, prepared in our little school kitchen, and there would always be special guests from the village invited to attend to attend the occasion. The criteria for being a ‘special’ guest seemed unclear, in retrospect, they seemed to be elderly people from the village who lived alone: our teacher knew about inclusivity before the word was invented.
The dinner was always followed by Christmas pudding served with custard and cream. There was a custom of putting a sixpenny coin into the mixture of each Christmas pudding; whoever got the sixpence was supposed to have good luck. It was a mystery how there came to be a sixpence in each dish. Forty sixpences would have made a pound, a pound that probably came out of the teacher’s pocket, though she would never have said.
The closing days of term would have been spent on the manufacture of decorations and Christmas cards. Robins and candles and snowmen were much easier to draw than anything religious; though stars in the sky weren’t too hard.
And then the holiday came and the excitement of Christmas and the desire to hold onto it wasn’t about anything religious. It certainly wasn’t about peace and goodwill, the news stories from Vietnam told us there was no peace on Earth. It was a desire to hold on to the sense of anticipation. The reality of Christmas never matched the expectation, but there was something in the build up, something in the looking forward, that made it a time different from any other.
There is a line in ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’ that goes ‘This holy tide of Christmas all others doth efface’ and, without ever going near a church for anything other than the school nativity play, I felt could understand what it was trying to say. Forty years later, I still haven’t found the right words to say what it was expressing.