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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A communal time

 Just ruined the spirit of Christmas on another blog which I trampled on with hob-nailed boots. Causing me to reflect on just what constitutes the spirit of Christmas.

It can be a broad spectrum.

Christmas One, 1959. Earlier in the year I'd met VR (then VT), a State Registered Nurse in a London hospital (see pic) and she was working through Christmas. I chose not to travel north to my family and instead had afternoon tea on the ward with VT and the Ward Sister. There were no patients as such in the beds; just saddos from the streets. brought in, cleaned up, given somewhere warm. I should add I'm a very infrequent candidate for afternoon tea.

Christmas Two, 1971. Mount Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb. Two days before Christmas brother Nick called from the UK to say our mother was in intensive care. He tried, but failed, to be upbeat. Said he'd ring with any more news. Heavy transatlantic phone traffic delayed the call which told me I was, to all intents and purposes, an orphan.

Two hospitals, one presaging a wedding, the other a funeral. I'm an atheist which means, I hope, I'm also a realist. No doubt about it Christmas is a time of intense communion. Where self-dependence sometimes isn't enough.

Christmas also seems linked to disasters. On one occasion preceded by a car crash, on another I was delirious with (I think) pleurisy, on yet another a marriage broke up.

Once I spent Christmas away from home, ostensibly rock-climbing, more often drinking beer. Slept in a barn and ate a large steak which should have been my Christmas dinner cooked by my mother. An event that was unsatisfactory in all senses.

This year will be a family thing. Part family, anyway, but a wider communion. The dead will I hope be accommodated and honoured.


  1. Sorry about those sad past Christmas times, Robbie.Indeed this time of year always has some gloom attached to the tinsel and the other side of jollity is tears.
    I can't remember if I enjoyed Christmas as a child but I suppose I did. The communal aspect is nice, apart from normal family squabbles, but on the whole, I'm quite glad when it's all over,and best wishes to you and VR and your family.

  2. I don't know what goes wrong with my typing but that last sentence got chopped up. It was meant to say: Have a happy one and best wishes to you and VR and family.

  3. Like you I share Mother's passing on a Chirstmas Eve. I lost my wife Ann to Motor Neurone Disease on a Boxing Day, and her own father also died on a Boxing Day, so it's hardly a time of happy memories for me.

    This year granddaughter Katie, just gone three, will be with me at home with daughter and son and it will be the first time Katie will really see Christmas from a proper perspective, so that will be something to look forward to.

  4. Whether it is anticipated with giddiness or trepidation, Christmas is such a force there is no way to ignore it. For a couple of years, on our own and determined to sidestep it, we went to the movies and hoped to go out to dinner after. The theatre was JAMMED with sadsacks like ourselves and the only restaurant open was a pizza parlour, which we declined. I think we went home to tuna sandwiches. The anti-Christmas was decidedly not as much fun as the indulgent one.

  5. Natalie: So, although you don't say it, present-day anticipation is outweighed by reality? Have you tried to adjust or doesn't it matter?

    Sir Hugh: Two terrible Christmases. But as I understand it, subsequent Christmases have taken on a memorial element. There's a practicality here since Christmas usually means the family is together and thus the basis for a memorial in situ. Do you do anything active? Invite your daughter and son to provide a spoken anecdote, for instance. Many Brits feel self-conscious about this kind of thing. But oral history can be powerful, can develop a life of its own.

    Stella: Tuna sandwiches! You'd really burnt your boats - not even a couple of steaks in the house. But oh the sneakiness of it. What an arresting tale to tell subsequently. Which you do, professionally. It would have been much harder to have animated an account of a traditional Christmas where everything went joyously.

    Glad you eschewed the pizza parlor. At least you avoided a starring role in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.

  6. I just chatted to Six-Foot-Blonde (23) whom I haven't seen since May. He is coming home for Christmas and got excited when I said that today, I was busy "making Christmas".

    What Christmas is really about, of course, is "making" memories. Happy or sad, memories are deeply precious, as those of us with loved ones who have lost theirs, know too well.

  7. Tom recalls in his previous incarnation as a paterfamilias, one of the best Christmases he can recall was when some tiles blew off the roof and he spent most of Christmas day atop said roof fixing them back. For myself, after childhood, I have to say it wasn't really until I attained full orphan status that it ceased to be a time dominated by guilt, resentment and generally oppressed spirits. What an awful pair of unnatural ingrates we must be.

    But as Stella says, it is a force one can't ignore, and when the elements of religious belief (for even in my fairly conventional C of E dominated education, they were straight with us that it didn't really happen like that, though I wish they might have told us a bit more about the Council of Nicaea...), and gross materialist consumption have been set aside as far as one can, there is still a persistent sense that it needs to mean something, as a time of communion, reflection and recollection. Though it seems to me that rather like Tolstoy's happy and unhappy families, all happy Christmases tend to blur forgettably into one, while it is those of unhappy memories which stand out distinctly.

    I do quite enjoy being dragged into the current in spite of myself, and getting a bit busy over it, taking on more than I really have to, putting chocolate in parcels in order to receive parcels of chocolate in return, agreeing to undertake a small amount of social contact, and grumbling somewhat about feeling under pressure and the amount of sugar I consume, when I know that I could quite easily refuse both and that compared to normal people with jobs and kids and elderly parents I have it very easy indeed.

    Our Dutch friend, who for many years rejected Christmas, or went along with it at best reluctantly, as an Anglo-imposed festival of greed, false feeling and obligation, is now offering an evening of meatballs and spaghetti to her single friends, who seem to be proliferating, and their dogs on Christmas Eve, from which we are almost, but not quite, sorry that our married state excludes us. She still holds out and goes for a walk on Christmas day, and is better than I am at saying no to the sugary offerings.

    Whatever, I do hope that yours goes well.

  8. Blonde Two: There are, of course, those who "make Christmas" and those who simply consume it. Lucy (below) refers to it as a time "dominated by guilt" and that may eventually happen to the lazybones - not that I'm suggesting for a moment she belonged to that latter category.

    I am just in from erecting, securing and decorating the outdoor tree. VR has been doing an awful lot of Christmas work and the tree has always been my job. I had to crank myself up, recalling how agonising it was in past years separating the thread loops on the baubles with frozen fingers. I took some comfort from the prospect of self-mortification, convinced that it would get me off the lazybones hook. As it happened, the weather was balmy and the work was almost pleasant. A neighbour passed by and we chatted, prolonging the work. Despite this VR was still at it with the indoor jobs when I re-entered and, alas, I have not avoided censure.

    Perhaps this minor event will form a telling anecdote in years to come.

    Lucy: I sympathise with Tom, though my catharsis has come from French summer holidays. How much more enjoyable it was to stop lolling by the pool and discuss the removal of a cyst from my backside with a French GP. True I wasn't doing anything as Tom was, but I had cast off the silken cloak of leisure.

    The Council of Nicaea! Complete with diphthong (or is it a liaison?). It is only because we're friends that I can be sure I'm not being "practised upon" - an activity that crops up regularly in the O'Brian series. I think you're absolutely right about the blurred vs. sharp memories. May I go a stage further: misery profits from its environment, happiness less so.

    Your regular confessions about reluctant sociability at first sounded all wrong, but over the years I now accept them. Not because I see you as a miseryguts but rather that you are one of the lucky ones in life - you always have something better to do. Far from being a failing, I see this as a gift.

    Re: spaghetti and meatballs (a detail you felt obliged to include). I recall a moment in Stuttgart.We were discussing Christmas Eve which we will spend at Occasional Speeder's house. OS is an excellent instinctive cook and I asked if she'd already planned the evening meal. She shook her head. Thinking only of myself I said, "Why not one of your sausage stews?" Then recognised the solecism. For a good cook a meal of that sort is an aspiration and OS saw no aspiration in a sausage stew. Even if I did.

    Perhaps some time you will post about a meal as an hoped-for expression of the occasion.