Festive Cheer from Bah Humbug

The mall spills festive cheer from every orifice.

The perfect Yule confection towers above us as we enter the centre atrium. The conical tree is bedecked with this years colours. Unsubtle silver and aqua baubles clamour for our attention – a surface covering of shiny pustules.

The silvered house for Santa and his reindeer is like a beacon to Mammon, beckoning all the little children to come unto it. Where they can spill their avarice into good ole Santa’s ears whilst the adult carers spill the contents of their purses and wallets into the hands of Santa’s little helpers.

I remember I was as greedy as any other child. I didn’t noticeably curb the excesses of my letter to Santa. Though I was well aware – by the age of 8 and thanks to the ridiculous impossibility of aspirations to the clandestine or furtive in a cramped two bedroom terraced Cooncil Hoose – that my Ma n Pa were ‘Santa’.

I did modify my list so as to include those items that Ma n Pa could reasonably afford. Though of course I stretched the boundaries of affordability.

I remember the building frenzy of excited anticipation that peaked on Xmas Eve. My brother Derek and I would be swept along in a perfect cataract of desire and satiated pleasure; of sweeties and wrapping-ripping; of giving and taking in return.

There was never a Xmas that disappointed. Though I remember Scottish Granny giving me a hairdryer one year that melted two weeks later – and which she returned to the shop but never ever replaced. And a t-shirt that I hated instantaneously on sight – and which I buried at the bottom of my drawer.

I look back now and can see into the perfect bleb of the memories and at the centre of it all is the family-visiting, the noisy hustle and bustle of our big extended family.

The 25th of December to the 2nd of January were the busiest and ecstatically happiest – spent with my hard-drinking and hard-partying and simply religious Irish Granny and my Communist Granpa and all my aunts and uncles and cousins and the Irish relatives. The small two-up two-down house just down from the Steel Works would be bursting at its seams. The never-ending trail of neighbours bearing bottles of whisky and vodka and rum. The singing. When you were sweet 16… When Irish eyes are smiling…Wee Cooper O Fife… Wee Deoch n Doris…Auld Lang Syne…Ae Fond Kiss… The vast meaty cauldrons of Scotch Broth and the huge metal ashettes of steak pie. The perpetual peeling of tatties and scrubbing of carrots and shelling of peas. The steamy kitchen opening into the small garden and Granpa’s Doo Hut and the old 18th Century trunk which Granny hated and which had been banished under a lino covering to the garden space under the back window.

Granny had a kitchen hatch which opened into the small space that served as Dining Room. I was fascinated by the hatch. A hole in the wall through which bowl after bowl after plate after plate and glass after glass would be served up.

Granpa made the food. Though Granny controlled it all. The men would be served first. I remember that. Then the women who would fuss over plates and cutlery. Our Tennants and McEwans and Bells and Grouse. And then us wains. Too numerous to be fed in one sitting, there would be several sittings. The food would go on all day it would feel to me.

Granny would have decked the house in gaudy tinsel. Chasing, twinkling, lanterns and jaggy floral bauble-shaped lights lined the outside window-frame. There was a Baby Jesus in his manger on the table at the window – sleeping peacefully under the sparkly wee tree. Later there were garlands of metallic red and green and gold to festoon the low ceiling. And the lava lamp would be outshone for a change.

The trim phone would trim-trim-trim with messages from over-the-seas and from the next street over who wanted to announce their setting off to join us.

I remember the house sung to the Belfast Brogue and raw Lanarkshire dialect. And my Granny’s voice would remember itself as strong and Northern Irish.

And in the middle of it my Mother’s beauty would be incandescent and light up the room – outdoing the fairy lights. Every man’s eyes would be on her. But even then, every woman would love her. Her glamorous but tasteful make-up; her subtle jewellery; the scarf tied just so; the dress cut to accentuate the turn of her waist, her fine bones, her generous breasts.  My Granny would say ‘Catch yer self oan. Our Mary was born t’ be a lady but thur was no room fur her’ and every one would laugh and nod and say ‘Sure and Mary is a beauty still, Martha’.

And Great Uncle Alex would search me out with his eyes and gesture toward me with his wide-open arm and always say ‘and where’s our wee stunner. Yer a beautiful lassie sure. Come and sing us all a song.’

They were mostly all dead by the time I was 16. Granny and her brother Alex of cruel cancers. Aunty Nessie later became too frail to travel. Communist Granpa would drown his bereaved sorrow for years before joining them when I was 21. So, by the time I met R and was pitched womb-first into a home of my own, the circle of extended family had shrunk.

And R had no experience of family. I had to teach him how they worked. Introduce him to ‘the rules’.

Perhaps that is why we have 5 children. But even if that is not one of the reasons it has always been my sorrow that they cannot ever know what that little house was like, filled with the generosity and joy of a family that spanned the generations. So I have tried to create my own pale copy.

We have tried to steer them from the gross want-want-want. We taught them a socialist redistributive Saint Nick who might take what money your parents could afford to give him – but who would decide how to equalise the distribution across a world of children. Though they also joined the nativity at the Salvation Army…

Every Xmas Eve we would sprinkle magic dust on the road outside to guide Santa to our house… Though later they each would be ‘reported’ to their School Teachers by angry parents who complained that they had debunked Santa and made children cry…

Ana at 9 yrs is well aware that there is no Santa. But she enjoys a charade of whisky and shortbread for Santa and carrots for his reindeer. The older two stumble home on Xmas Eve at 3am from the pub celebrations – and suffer for it in the little ones’ enforced 5.30am rise.

But they all want to be here. Stirring bread or cranberry or mint or apple sauce. Carving turkey and lamb and ham. Lighting the Xmas pud. Fighting, squabbling, laughing.

It’s a cliche of middle-age to bemoan the appalling and rampant consumerism; the loss of the Xmas message in the mountain of tinsel and pound notes.

I was like Pavlov’s dog in that mall yesterday. All bristling and indignant at the stark monuments and little alters to Mammon. I’ve recovered myself in time.

We imagine the past as some better place where minds and motives were purer; where there was an innocence; where greed was not as greedy and want was not as naked.

It’s all balooney of course. Greed and want are still greed and want, regardless of the scale.

And when you scratch the surface, when you speak to people of what they enjoy about their Christmas rituals, we come down to the same base: that we value most the time spent together, simply sharing company and whatever victuals we have.

I can’t believe that I’m writing of Christmas and it’s only October. I was going to moan about the mall and the consumerist industrialisation of what could otherwise be special (even for an atheist). But having gone through all of the above I’m actually looking forward to my December.

6 thoughts on “Festive Cheer from Bah Humbug

  1. Of course you're looking forward to it…you're looking forward to what you have described..people being happy together.

    I saw the first reindeer(fibre glass) in San Jose this week….but needed no reminder that Christmas will be upon us.
    Prices of foodstuffs have risen twofold..particularly potatoes and tomatoes to be used in the tamales eaten from now on down to the New Year.
    Sheer profiteering….but families will be happy making and eating them together.

    Bring on the banana leaves….

  2. For me as a child Christmas was always a time of family: my Uncle travelling to his Mother's from his home a day away and everyone gathering at my Grandmother's house. Everyone? All eight of us.

    As an adult it was the pilgrimage from Lewis with our children to our parents who initially, before the roads were as they are now, lived two days travel away.

    My brother still loves and celebrates Christmas.

    I spend it with my New Zealand family: more strident in their atheism than I am. It is a time of mammon as you say. When I had faith I decried the fact that people had lost the meaning of Christmas. Now I have no faith I'm even more of the school of bah humbug.

  3. It is good to remember, to write it all out like that. I remember my nan's puddings and custard – meanwhile it was 30 degrees outside and we'd just been for a ski or were about to. I never knew the cold till lately. We had many xmases in Africa, where celebrating was minor, I can hardly remember it. For five years I was with a bloke who refused to celebrate it, not even for the kids.

    Now in Italy it is all about divisions. Who is to eat with whom. I've moved away from it and last year didn't even put up the tree. Went skiing. The commercial buildup just makes you want to sneak away. I think I made cherry jam and vodka for people.

    But this year I am putting up the tree.

  4. The change in the clocks always heralds the coming of Christmas for me – thank God for the internet though; I simply refuse to shop! But for all I can do humbug, I actually like Christmas very much, and lament that my children are not as young as they used to be.

  5. Even though your family wasn't mine and I'm a generation older than you, your post describes the kernel of what made Christmas so special a a child. Our house too was small and crowded with parents and grandparents and great-aunts and uncles and my four sisters and me. No drink, other than a small glass of sherry, but the food and the fun and the sense of all being together was the same.

    Nowadays we travel to be with our children and their families, turn and turn about over Christmas and New Year and I still love it.

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