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American Pie: Christmas Past

…There was a tree of course, and mistletoe and holly and ivy; all gathered by my parents from the woods behind our house. Newly fallen snow was a bonus. My overall sense of that time was therefore more primeval than spiritual: more to do with seeking reassurance that the sun would return to full power after the winter solstice, a concern that is buried deep in my Nordic genes….

John Merchant was enchanted by the Christmas celebrations of his boyhood – but admits that he became more and more downhearted as Christmas 2008 approached.

Christmas has come and gone once more; leaving me to reflect on what the season really means to me, as often I have after previous Holidays. Certainly the character of my particular Christmas has changed radically over the years, as have my circumstances and for that matter as I have. The earliest Yuletide I can remember predates World War II, when, as the only grandchild, I was the four-year-old center of family attention.

Doting parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles showered me with wonderful gifts. That year my parents also took me to the Cutlers Hall in Sheffield, England, where an annual, charity toy fair was held. I don’t remember the details, but I have retained this lasting impression of the grand, marble hall aglow with lights and filled with magical gifts. It’s a warm and comforting recollection and belied the grim future that we all were unwittingly facing.

My parents were not religious, nor were their forebears. Outside of their marriage and the christening of their children, they probably never entered a place of worship. So the character of my first Christmas recollections wasn’t spiritual; it was more to do with gifts and food and treats and the other trappings of a winter festival that was celebrated long before Christians made it their own.

There was a tree of course, and mistletoe and holly and ivy; all gathered by my parents from the woods behind our house. Newly fallen snow was a bonus. My overall sense of that time was therefore more primeval than spiritual: more to do with seeking reassurance that the sun would return to full power after the winter solstice, a concern that is buried deep in my Nordic genes. I think that early childhood experience has conditioned my expectations of the Holiday ever since, though the character of my Christmas for several years after was radically different.

From the almost lavish celebrations of peacetime, wartime austerity placed a cold hand on festivities of any sort. No longer did I awake on Christmas morning to piles of books and toys, and a stocking stuffed with an orange, an apple, newly minted pennies and the gold foil covered coins of earlier times. Such gifts as there were had to be hand fashioned out of whatever materials were available, or recycled; re-gifted as we say now.

It was during the war that religion was added to my Yuletide experience by way of my unwilling debut as a choirboy, though this added nothing to my sense of spirituality, even with the reinforcement provided by concurrent Sunday school attendance. It was a stretch too far for me to identify with an almost 2000-year-old story of virgin birth in a stable, surrounded by worshipful cattle: attended by three kings from afar bearing gifts, led to this unprepossessing spot on the earth by a star. Why only three kings, I reasoned; why not twenty, or a hundred?

I enjoyed the carols; at least the older ones, especially those that echoed my primeval groundings - “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Here We Come A’ Wassailing Among the Leaves so Green,” etc. At that time the syrupy, mawkish songs, as performed later by the likes of Bing Crosby and Andy Williams, had yet to make the airwaves. But I still didn’t get the “message,” and in fact I haven’t to this day, though I have no problem with people who derive comfort and joy from the biblical story.

After the war ended, the stringencies of rationing and shortages continued into the early 1950’s, and by then of course I knew for sure that there was no Santa Clause, Father Christmas we called him, and so my sights were lowered quite a bit. But when later I started to earn a wage, I discovered the true happiness of giving, and of trying to recreate my early childhood Christmas memories for my own kids. Now it was my turn to forage the woods for the holly and mistletoe, though I had forgone a live tree for an artificial one, not wanting to denude England of its few remaining pines.

At the time I left the UK to live in America, Christianity was at low ebb in England. Churches were empty, and some were being used as bingo halls or warehouses. So it was a considerable surprise to find that congregations were swelling in the US, and that I was very much the odd man out in my preference for a secular celebration. But there were pine trees aplenty, as there was snow, though the holly and ivy were only available in the supermarket at an exorbitant price. I had by then more money in my pocket than at any time in my life, allowing me to indulge my pleasure in giving.

In the 35 years I have lived in the USA, Christianity, and unfortunately religiosity, have burgeoned. I say “unfortunately” because, in my opinion, wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeve demeans it. Where I live in Florida, the Southern Baptist churches are wealthy and massive. Congregations in the thousands are not uncommon. But for someone with my preferences, trying to celebrate the season is all but impossible in 80 plus degrees, surrounded by sub-tropical foliage.

This past Christmas, my wife and I, in common with many people of our age, decided not to exchange gifts. Our means are such that we no longer have to wait for the Holiday if we need or want something, as we did long ago. Although I was in agreement with our decision, as Christmas Day approached I became more and more downhearted at the prospect. It seemed like the last vestige of my idyllic season was gone. So now I guess I know what the heart of Christmas is to me – it’s the giving.

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