Christmas: magic in the gospel.

The magic of Christmas can be found in all areas of our lives. It’s no secret that Christmas is an annual delight for me. From the rehearsals to prepare for the big Christmas Morning discovery, to the loss of the Christmas cash, there are many stories that add to the magic and the mystery, and none more than the divinity of Christmas.

I was a slip of a schoolgirl in Primary 5, when I was selected to read a passage from the bible at the Christmas Eve service in our local Church in Shotts. Not only was this a great honour, it was also being recorded by the BBC for their Songs of Praise programme. So my delivery of the gospel was now centre stage and about to be heard by people all over the United Kingdom, that was if they had actually tuned into BBC Radio Scotland.

This was about as close to famous as I was going to be as a child and it was both a thrilling and daunting prospect. It was no real surprise I had been the recipient of the reading prize in many of my primary school classes. But to deliver this live on the radio was about to test the quality of my Received Pronunciation. Perhaps I might be snapped up by the BBC, who knew?

So I got down with some serious rehearsing, and it was full on, so much effort went in to this I can still recall the opening verse of the passage, which was from St Luke’s gospel. This was the moment I fell in love with the real story of Christmas. Day in day out I recited it, practiced it, looked in the mirror and mouthed it, exaggerating the words, investing more and more in the meaning until I truly felt it.

St Luke was one of the many apostles of Jesus, his gospel in the New Testament is noted to be peppered with evidential information that situates events in time. This historical account draws you into the era, and although Scholars are split on the accuracy of his writing, it is credited with being an historic account of events. The gospel passage is one of a census, under the direct request of the Roman Dictator Julius Caesar, an event that places the story within a time frame. This passage, because I became so familiar with it, strongly shaped my beliefs as a young girl. It always reinforced the real meaning of Christmas for me every year since I first learned about it.

Later in life I learned more about St Luke that only served to reinforce my personal religious beliefs and add weight to them. If you are looking for evidence then Luke of all the apostles was arguably one of the most evidentially informative and historically accurate of the gospel writers. He was also strongly believed to be the probable author of the Acts of the Apostles meaning his contribution to the narrative of Christianity was substantial. There’s no doubt he was capable, as a physician he was an educated man who lived until he was 84 years.

The radio programme, much to my disappointment, was actually being recorded and not live, so we had to do this in November. As it happens this day was not without its own dramas. It was to be a memorable day for me for all of the wrong reasons. My Grandad had been ill in hospital, I now know that it was bowel cancer but as a child I was not informed about that. It was a complete surprise when he died and it was on the day of my recital. I remember the pain forming a lump the size of a golf ball in the back of my throat, forcing the emotion upward, forming as tears in my eyes, stinging and smarting as I tried to keep them from tipping over the lid and dribbling down my face. I will never forget the memory of my father unable to conceal his distress and letting the emotion fall over at the loss of his beloved father. Having spent most of the day crying and feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness, like I had never before experienced, it was clear I had to gather myself together and get ready for the big recording. I was not sure I could even walk to the Church never mind stand up and deliver the gospel.

In the Catholic faith, the Gospel is read by the priest, but the readings in the Church of Scotland, could be delivered by anyone. Looking back from where I stand now on my religious belief, the enormity of being asked to read from the gospel of St Luke was an incredible honour. I recall that my cheeks were glowing, red from all the upset. My throat felt as if it had glue poured down into my gullet and attracted all the dust disturbed by the parishioners as they entered the church in their hundreds. It’s amazing what a BBC recording can do to people, even if they were only on the radio.

“And it came to pass in those days” ………….I began to read with no sign of nerves full of confidence and self-assured knowing Grandad was there, right there beside me telling me I was doing just fine.

Looking for Christmas (part 2)

My mother was clearly distraught, at 7 I wasn’t all that adept at knowing how to respond it these situations but her distress seemed to search inside me for the best response I could find. I gave her a hug, tapping her shoulder repeatedly and slowly to affirm my concern and telling her it would be ok. I had no idea if it would be ok, but it appeared to be the right thing to say. She released me from my hug, indicating for me to sit before her and drew in a deep breath.

“I’ve lost some money,” she said, and continued, “this money was for Santa to pay for the presents he was bringing”. There was a lot of information in this statement, I took time to digest it. I wasn’t aware you had to pay Santa for presents, I was trying to work out how payments might be made or where the conversation took place to barter between humans and Santa? I knew we had sent letters, perhaps Santa sent a receipt in the post, and you arranged to leave the money beside the mince pies and carrots for collection on Christmas Eve?

Usually there was a limit on spending, we knew about it, not always sure what it was but knew it existed because if we asked for too much the retort would let us know it was too expensive. ” That’s just not possible, move on” my mother would say and we knew we had to forget about it. There didn’t seem to be the same regulation with things we asked for in our letters to Santa.

Then the realisation began to dawn that if she couldn’t pay what would Santa do? Did he take tick? Tick was the colloquial term for Credit in Shotts, I had no idea what credit was either but I knew, or rather had pieced together meaning from adult conversations, that sometimes things could be bought now and paid for later. A man in a smart suit and hat would come to the house weekly and write things in a book and mum would give him money. I understood him to be the ‘tick-man’. Did he know Santa? I was perplexed by these revelations and worried about the consequences.

My mother wept into her handkerchief and I asked how much she had lost. She looked straight at me for some level of insight or understanding about how much a 7 year old could appreciate the loss of £300. In today’s terms that is about the equivalent of a purchasing power of £6, 700. I recall thinking we must have been getting a lot of presents! Dad was due home on Christmas Eve so we had to bear this knowledge alone. Mum had done what she had to do and finally called the police. It was unthinkable for her that someone had stolen it, but as it had been lost for so long and every corner searched, every piece of furniture overturned, every nook and cranny examined and still no trace, it was all we had left.

Two days til Christmas and there was a gloom around the house; the sparkle of the Christmas lights had dimmed and, as a 7 year old facing her first major crisis, I experienced a deep sadness and insecurity. The order of my world had been turned upside down by this loss; it had affected my mother so much there was an incredible change in her personality, she seemed to switch between hopelessness and anger. We kept out of her way. And we kids started to accept that Santa might not come and there would be no presents, or at least not what we had asked for.

On Christmas Eve, eve we went to bed and mum was settling all three of us down for the night. The wardrobe door was lying open and as she chatted to us she walked over to close it. In mid sentence, she stopped in her tracks. My bed was at right angles to the wardrobe, I could see her face, it contorted from realisation to horror, a memory flashed before her eyes, which diverted to look at me. And suddenly she was in the wardrobe pulling out a fur hat. This was my grandmother’s hat, it was real fur (a thing back in the day) with satin brown lining. Part of the stitching holding this lining in place had parted the satin from the fur and offered you a fabulous hiding place. She put her hand into the lining and pulled out the missing cash.

I leapt out of my bed, jumping up and down on the mattress nearly banging my head on the ceiling. My sisters knew something amazing had just happened but not what. My mother threw the cash in the air and it fell like feathers floating to the floor, just missing the roaring fire in our bedroom. Santa would be coming after all………………..

Looking for Christmas.

There is one Christmas that always stands out, it is quite a memory, but it’s not because of the joy and laughter I remember it, no it was because there was almost no Christmas that year.

We were living in Shotts with my Grandad at the time, both parents were working. Dad was driving long distance and often away for long periods and Mum part-time, as most of the time she was looking after us and my Grandad too. We three girls shared a room, so I must have been about 7 or 8 at the time. It was a big room for the 3 of us, there was a single bed, a double bed, a wardrobe, dressing table and fireplace. The wardrobe was about 5 feet tall, walnut with a pewter handle. It had a single door, with clothes hung to the left and right and shelving at the top on either side. It wasn’t for our clothes, they were stored in drawers, but my mother stored all of her glamorous gear in this wardrobe so we often sneaked in here to look at her clothes and dress up in her shoes.

The three windows in the bedroom overlooked the front of the street and our garden. The hall, accessed by the front door in the middle of the front elevation, gave access to this bedroom on the left and the living room on the right. I don’t recall if the front door was ever locked, when Grandad lived in the house he was never really out and we had a dog, which was the fashionable and affordable security back in the day. Anyone could have come in, I guess, but everyone had an open door back then and if we heard the door we would rush to see who had come to visit and what delights they had with them.

At the rear of our house we had about 6 steps leading to the back door, into what we called the back kitchen and a door out into the T-shaped hall. Within the T part were the other 2 bedrooms and bang in the middle was our bathroom. It would have been easy to access our bedroom but hardly unnoticed.

As Christmas approached we had already put up our tree, but something was not quite right. By the age of 7 I could tell when things were far from harmonious in the house, call it intuition or just being alert to the dynamics but I could tell my mother appeared distracted. We girls were all at school by now, apart from the youngest sister who was only just 4. Being out of the house at school meant we missed a large part of family life and by the time we returned home the usual rush to have dinner before brownies or the salvation army meetings meant you were pretty much oblivious to what everyone else was doing.

There was a sense of panic one night just two weeks before Christmas. Dad was off ‘down the road’ as we used to say, and mum had been searching for something for days. While this began with periodic glances behind cushions, or digging out old handbags, it built slowly toward a crescendo becoming more frantic as days went on. Grandad, who never did anything around the house, had even joined in taking to turning cushions over and even tipping the sofa upside down.

Looking on I was trying to make sense of the emerging chaos, but in all honesty had no idea what was happening. I knew however what ever it was it was bad; the adults were distraught. Our dog just looked on bemused while this tornado of torment continued. She was trained to recover things, but I’m guessing they thought her skills were just for the dog shows as no-one thought for a moment she could assist. I pushed this childish idea out of my head. While I guessed they were looking for something I was clever enough to know I was not able to help because my requests fell on deaf ears. What ever had been lost was significant. At one point my mother was in tears.

These were the days long before telephones and with dad away she had to bear it herself. She was 25 years old when I was 7 so her youth combined with her isolation seemed to add considerable weight to what ever it was she was seeking. Finally three days before Christmas she clearly had no options left but to take me into her confidence.

By 7 I guess you are mature enough to hear bad news, I mean, I might not have been prepared for it, but she must have had no choice but to tell me as my father was still not back from his travels. I sat down, and looked at her, my steady little childlike world about to be rocked by the news she had to share. I was a little nervous and could feel my heart start to pick up the pace as she looked me in the eye and began to tell me her story. It must have been a dilemma for her, knowing what I would make of this loss, knowing too it meant the end of my childhood. She clearly had no other option but divulge what was ailing her and end my fantasy right there and then………

Rehearsals for Christmas have been curtailed.

It has always been my favourite time of year, from a very young age I was mesmerised by Christmas magic and it’s never left me. My earliest memories of Christmas were full of joy and excitement reinforced by the happy times when we lived with my Grandad, my parents and two younger sisters in Shotts.

The Christmas season kicked off when we began preparations for the end of term school party. From the end of November we learned Scottish country dancing and were introduced to the delights of the Gay Gordon’s, Strip the Willow and the Military Two Step. If you were lucky (and your parents could afford it) you got a new outfit for what felt like a never-ending run of Christmas parties. It was such a busy time for budding socialites like me. Largely dependent on the social standing of the organisations that you attended and their predisposition for throwing parties, like the Salvation Army, the Sunday school or the Brownies.

As is true with every fanatic there are bizarre unexplainable behaviours associated with your obsession. For me these centred on precision planning for the Christmas discovery that Santa had been. In my opinion this required a finely tuned and masterfully orchestrated plan to reduce all possible margins for error for such an important occasion. To suppress any anxiety I had that I might miss Christmas Day (hardly likely) I organised weekly rehearsals. These were much to my sister’s consternation, as the rehearsals ran for four weeks up to Christmas Eve and were always in the middle of the night. As an adult you could never understand nor appreciate the necessity for such a rehearsal. However for a childhood fanatic like me it was essential; the order in which we awakened and the precision timing associated with the start of the big day was a matter of significant importance.

This was one operation which in my view could never be left to chance, nor could I ever envisage the circumstances that would mean I was not the person to announce that Santa had been. So in addition to making sure we were up, my priority was all about being the person who made the Christmas discovery. Such was my obsession I was unable to contemplate the scenario that my younger sisters would be the first to the scene. So the rehearsal was designed to reinforce the prevailing status and order among my siblings and that it was absolutely my responsibility to make sure this happened.

After all Christmas was such a rare but exquisite event when you were wee that you couldn’t afford to miss a thing or sleep in. Getting my sisters (who were not yet at school) out of bed in the middle of the night proved to be a very difficult task, they’d rather be sleeping than creeping along the corridor in the freezing cold. Because we shared a room they had no way to escape this drill, but at least this ensured that no-one else was disturbed. However they were sleeping so soundly (and one was in a cot), that it was almost inevitable there was a bit of a racket when I was getting them up. So much so Dad heard us one night and, although we did our best to blend into the wallpaper in the hall ( just as we had been practising), his late night discovery curbed the remaining schedule of rehearsals I had planned.

Therefore I had to find other ways to satisfy my longing for all things Christmas until one year the ultimate happened- I was awake when Santa called. It was Christmas Eve, outside the heavy snow had become hard packed under foot and was glistening like diamonds in the moonlight. I’d been up at the window on numerous occasions that night hoping to catch a glimpse of the man himself. Our fire was smouldering in the room creating a fiery glow at floor level. The windows were frozen on the inside, but the laughter of our neighbours making their way home from the pub caused me to scrape a small viewing pane. They were sliding, throwing snowballs and partaking in other festive foreplay on their way home. This upset me greatly as it was highly unlikely Santa would appear while they were still up. I climbed back into bed unable to sleep, crippled with excitement.

Back in my bed, I’m sure I heard bells ringing. Now I am not 100% sure of this, but something stirred outside making me hold my breath to aid my hearing. There was a rustle of papers and stamping of feet and I heard my Grandad, who was babysitting, say in quite a clear and unaffected way, “Oh it’s you Santa, come in!” Without response I heard his heavy feet stamp on the doormat, I imagined him clearing off the snow from his boots before he entered the hall. I felt the air in the bedroom chill as the door continued to be held open for what seemed an age, and finally I let my breath fly out of my nostrils into a frosty cloud when I was sure he had entered the lounge.

I was terrified and excited all at the same time but I noticed I was frozen to my bed. I was quietly frustrated at my Dad for curbing the essential drills that would have enabled me to sneak out of the bedroom and into the living room where Santa was being entertained by my Grandad. But I was also grateful because I’m not sure how I would have responded coming face to face finally with the great man that Christmas Eve.

Transfixed, I lay there wide awake, breathing deeply, wishing and wondering about the delights awaiting me the following morning when I got up. If I didn’t sleep in I’m pretty sure I would find out…………………..

A little bit of Christmas Fun

Here we are in December; I love Christmas and all that it promises, family, faith and fairy lights. I’m usually quite religious about putting my tree up 12 days before the 24th and taking it down on the 12th day too, but when I was working in the early days, driving about our home town in Livingston in 1979, it was my guiltiest pleasure to play spot the Christmas tree.

In those days it was exceptional for trees to be put up early so spotting one was rare and spotting one in November was extremely rare. You were guaranteed to see them in December of course and I always found it strangely marvellous that people chose to put them up as soon as December burst onto the scene. I loved to search for the sparkling lights; the multi-colour ones were best, so pretty fanning out in the window like a preening peacock staring out into the wet bleak nights of winter. It wasn’t such a bad way to spend our time, as the roving car all we had to do was drive around, being available or looking for fairy lights while waiting on someone to call for our help.

As a woman (it was the 70’s) I was rarely in the driving seat so I used this prevailing order to give me a massive advantage over my colleagues in this game. As the passenger it left me free to scan the houses and flats that lined our route and spontaneously shout out “Xmas tree!” while they were consigned (in this job) by gender to concentrate on the road. I know for the most part they were humouring me; I was a young naive girl trying to find my way into a man’s world. So my fascination in all things Christmas was almost stereotypical and provided a form of light entertainment for them.

Of course there were the hard nosed individuals, who were not enamoured by my game, but my naive persistence bit into their stoic repudiation to humour me (or ignore my ravings). This was actually a test of their tolerance and acceptance of me and let me know where I stood. By the end of the shift, it was not unusual that they too would be sucked into the search by my girlish enthusiasm for something as simple as looking for Christmas trees in what could often be an otherwise difficult day.

My most guilty pleasure at this time of year in my working life, was the opportunity we had to creep on other people’s Christmas. No matter where we were in the town when you went into a home, there was the chance to glimpse Christmas and all its splendour. Everyone had their own traditions and take on the celebration; sparkling lights, wrapped presents, chocolate advent calendars, bright baubles and flickering candles that added to my catalogue of ideas and developing my own style.

It wasn’t until the late 90’s outside lights began to appear, by which time I was working in Edinburgh. It was a real treat to explore the various parts of the city, to see whether tat or taste was on show. I loved the bright, staccato pulsing colours that lined the roofs, inflatable Santas chained to chimney’s, trains and reindeers pulling present laden sleighs that were most frequently on show in the council estates. While among the bourgeoisie there were single colour white or blue lights gracefully adorning trees, or reindeers and snowmen standing tall, burning brightly and fashionably alone in and among the shrubs and conifers of stately addresses in Edinburgh.

If I was working on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve the sheer excitement of both days was some times tempered with the reasons for us being called to homes during the holidays. On those occasions, the lights were dulled by parents fuelled by drink or children for whom the promise of Christmas had not yet been delivered. Bright lights often belied what lay behind closed doors, all too often we were called in when the lights went out. The thrill of Christmas lights helped to mask the realities of life and everything we had to deal with in our working days………………..