By Elizabeth Jennings
IT started long before Christmas Day, with deciding what you would have as your "main" present, with visiting toy-shops and reading fat catalogues. There would be hours spent in the nursery imaging a butcher's shop or a doll's house, or even a Hornby train. There was also the longing for snow to fall though it seldom did for Christmas itself.
Religion never entered this part of Christmas. Up to a point, children are little materialists too, and what they are going to receive for Christ
' mas is the most important thing. Giving was secondary with us though we loved the actual buying of presents for other people.
I remember once being given half-a-crown with which to buy all my presents at Woolworth's. I managed it and even bought myself one too! At other times, my sister and I would search through our own possessions. trying to find something suitable for our parents. We would give them small handkerchiefs or soap shaped like animals.
As Christmas Day got nearer, so our excitement grew. Holly and a tree were brought into the house and the pungent smell of conifers somehow symbolised the arrival of Christmas itself. Then there was the putting out of the crib figures, with the tender, tiny child, scantily clad, lying on straw between the ox and the ass.
On Christmas Eve we hung up our stockings and I remember imagining that I could hear the sound of reindeer bells and the movements of a sleigh.
When we were very small,
we did not go to Midnight Mass but we were taken to the 8 o'clock one on Christmas morning. This gave us plenty of time to open our stockings —and what an excitement that was
Church smelt strange. There was ever-green and holly everywhere, and the altar was decked with flowers. The Christ child was lying in his crib and we lighted special candles for him. I don't think I was ever confused by the presence of the crib and the talk of Father Christmas. Nor did it worry me that there were so many Father Christmases—in the street, in the toy-shops, and in my own imagination. Later. when my sister told me he didn't exist, I was not greatly upset. Indeed, at first, I did not believe her.
Most children, I believe, are like myself and do not mind greatly when they learn that Father Christmas is a myth. It is amazing, however. to realize just how far a child's imagination will stretch. I myself believed that he could come down a chimney that was sealed up and had no grate.
Our Christmases at home had a ritual from which my parents never deviated. We never opened our big presents until after Christmas dinner, which was at lunch-time. They were placed round the Christmas tree and a handsome pile they looked. My parents had dressed the tree on the night of
Christmas Eve, and there it stood, glittering with glass balls and glowing with candles. Around it was a mound of exciting parcels.
Children love ritual and repetition, and when we once (I was six at the time) spent Christmas away and things were done differently, 1 did not like it aLall.
Christmas dinner meant turkey, plum pudding (which I never liked), mince pies, almonds, raisins, other nuts, sweets. chocolates, jelly and Turkish Delight. As a special treat, we were allowed a glass of cider.
Then came the opening of the presents, the untying of glittering string, the tearing open of holly-designed paper. And then, at last, the presents themselves—shiny roofed doll's houses. dolls which cried, Teddy Bears, pencil boxes, Meccano, toy trains and cars, musical instruments and dozens of other things.
This is all the materialistic side of Christmas, yet it is magical too. Children do not really separate the physical from the spiritual and each element is taken into the child's mind and there transformed by the power of imagination. However, I do especially recall what might be termed a first movement. of charity in me. Our old gardener had called to bring us sweets and I remember giving him some chocolates with a glowing sensation of love for him. It was very strange.
The day drew on into evening and soon the carol-singers came—sometimes in large groups, sometimes one pathetic single child. Everyone felt warm with good will and generosity and many new pennies and old shillings were given to the singers. Then, we closed the door again, went back to the hot fire, played with our new toys and waited for large plates of cold turkey, stuffing and ham to be brought in for our supper. I remember looking out of a window at the stars and thinking that I could see the one which stood over the stable at Bethlehem.
Christmas seemed to last a long time and for many days. There is much to tell but,
before I do so, .1 would like to reflect for a moment on the state of the child's mind at Christmas. So many ingages and ideas are flung at it that one wonders what Christmas means to a child between the ages of two and eight.
God, stars, a baby, shepherds, snow, holly, mince pies, sweets, stockings, toys, church — all join together in p mysterious harmony which it is hard to explain rationally. Christ's birth is above all else, a child's feast. The kings brought gifts and so the child has a stocking and a Christmas tree. This is the celebration of the time of innocence and real magic. Dreams come true overnight, the day displays them untarnished.
So Christmas appeared to me when I was a child. I can
not remember exactly when some of the magic started to disappear; it was certainly not when my sister told me that Father Christmas was a myth. I think it was probably during the 1939 war when one Christmas we had no turkey, or even a chicken. That Christmas is memorable for what we did try and infuse into it. I can recall going out into the country in search of holly, and there comes back, too, a recollection of very home-made decorations, of tortoises made out of walnut shells and painted, of paper angels, and home-made cribs.
Then there was the first year when I was thought too old to have a stocking. I shall never forget that or the disappointment with which I viewed the bottom of my bed on Christ mas morning. These war-time Christmases meant cold churches, few candles, soya bean marzipan and meagre presents. "But it is the feast that matters" I was told. I could scarcely believe it.
No, for me Christmas is the rich time of the shining stars, smiling babies, benevolent fathers, sleigh-bells and Christmas trees, Sentimentality? Not really, because these things entered and opened my childish mind to the real meaning of Christmas; they were images behind which I sensed a further mystery, that of God made Man, of a child coming to redeem the world. Such concepts are not beyond a child's comprehension; they are simply dressed for him in tangible magic. And magic can be a piece of tinsel or a hushed church. The child sees no discrepancy.
But, to return to my childhood Christmases—after I had fallen into bed on Christmas night, sated with good things (not least my own dreams come true), Christmas still went on. The Epiphany is not until January 6 and all the waiting days before it were filled with strange happenings.
First of all, there would be snow (it almost always started to fall after Christmas) and the making of snow balls and snow-men. When we were a little older, we were allowed to skate and ride sleighs. While we were still fairly small, the white ground was enough for ' Then there were the parties, pantomimes, and puppet shows, On Boxing Day, we all went to the pantomime, and however vulgar they may have been, they were wonderful and mysterious to us. Parties were not so much fun (I was very shy) and I can remember one whole Christmas being spoilt because I had to go to one afterwards. I hated the food, the frilly dresses, the impossible competitions, the need to shine and prove something.
In this way, Christmas comes hack to me when I was a child — a miracle, an excitement, a time of dreams being fulfilled. Now that I am grown-up, cannot smell candle wax or evergreens without thinking also of the crib, the Christchild and the kings coming with gifts.
For me Christmas is no longer associated with a breathing, hushed church, on the one hand, and with holly and marzipan on the other. I have lost the power to search the sky for one single, distant star. What have I lost, and what gained?
Many things in the material order certainly, but have T not also lost the magic of Christmas. At Midnight Mass I turn towards the crib and shiver with the cold of the church. But. as the priest lays the baby child in the manger, memories come back and I want to cry for what 1 have lost, and also even for what I have gained.