The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – Of Christmas Past
“It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business. … Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga”
–Seneca, (4BC-AD 65) Roman philosopher.
We are frequently exhorted, mostly without further explanation, not to forget the true meaning of Christmas. Or, as it is so rhythmically put; “the reason for the season”. I suppose that this implies either that we are to remember that that this season is popularly deemed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ or that we should dare to be Christlike in our conduct at this time and thus to be more considerate of the poor, to show love to our neighbours and, generally, to be a good person. From casual observation, however, it would seem rather that the true reason(s) for the season may be the unbridled commerce in the unnecessary (in the legal sense of that term), gluttony and/or a reprise of Saturnalia with the gift-giving, the continual partying and the presence of the Christmas tree, to remind of the inevitable return of the Sun in Spring.
You must not think from this, dear reader, that I am by any means a Grinch and, ever mindful that the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ may be more what man would wish for Him, than what He himself commanded; in stark contrast to the fundamentalist literalism in most other areas of earthly existence, I am as much given to the secular celebration as anyone else.
Some of my earliest memories of Christmas include the annual affirmation of my late mother, with the onset of the cooler nights (and days), that “Christmas [was] in the air”, although she was equally quick to remind us morbidly that, by that day, “many hot heads will be cool”.
Those memories also include the variety of smells associated with the season. The smell of new congoleum, of new curtains, of furniture polish. Incidentally, I might be dating myself a bit with the use of the word “congoleum, a word that does not find place if the Oxford English dictionary or even the Allsopp; one that seems to revolt the spellcheck on my desktop and, according to at least one website, is not a valid scrabble word! It was simply a form of floor covering that was a de rigueur purchase for Christmas to replace the previous year’s, which, by then, would be showing clear signs of wear and be most inapt for another twelvemonth use.
After those early smells of preparation would come, as the Day neared, the more aromatic scents of fermenting fruits for the cake, of the baking ham; of the cake mix before it was put into pans and into the oven; of freshly brewed ginger beer and of the “English” apples that seemed seasonal back then.
Toys, apart from the obligatory cap gun or book, did not form an obligatory part of our seasonal existence nor do I recall feeling deprived at not receiving a Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly game; there were always friends that did who were only too willing, of necessity, to share. In later years, the greater fun would come from visiting and being visited by friends, either those of our parents or of one’s own. If the former, my brother and I might be invited to try a taste of alcoholic beverages – I remember one of my father’s friends advising me that if I drank what was in his glass that I would have slept “until Tuesday morning”. That phrase has stayed with me to this day.
Another memorable aspect of my earlier Christmasses was singing and church attendance . This was not owed to any popular custom or even religiosity on my part or that of my parents; it was rather that at around nine years of age or so, I had been inducted into the St Leonard’s Church choir; membership of which inevitably meant also becoming a part of the loftily-titled Choir for the Animation of the Sick and Incapacitated, ably led by the church organist, Mr Harold Rock. This meant that I had to sing at Midnight Mass on the Christmas Eve; for at least one of the Christmas Day services; and on the Boxing Day holiday, the adjunct group would be off on a tour to spread Christmas cheer to the inmates of the island’s then almshouses (now District Hospitals) and Children’s Homes. I seem to recall that Mr Rock eventually received some sort of gong [MBE?] for his efforts, but his just deserts would certainly have come from the warm reception of the Choir by the shut-ins.
Christmas is quite different for me now. I have children of my own and I no longer sing in the choirs, even though the words of the popular traditional hymns and carols have remained with me to this day. For those readers who would have sung last night the opening words of the hymn, “Christians Awake, salute the happy morn”… I too have been there.
To all my readers, wherever you are, may you have a blessed and enjoyable Christmas Day and season.