So, that time of the year has arrived again, when you clean up the last of the wrapping paper and give the dog a turkey dinner because you just can’t face it anymore; the days in which ‘this Christmas’ turns into ‘last Christmas’. The time of year, in fact, when you think about Christmases past, and what you remember most about them.
For me, the most vivid Christmas memories are of childhood, not so much of my own, as it’s really getting a very long time ago now, but of my children’s and most of all, of my grandchildren’s. Our granddaughter, at only just one, is in the playing with boxes and wrapping paper stage this year.
However, our grandsons are getting past early childhood now at 13, ten and seven, and, at the moment, my most precious Christmas memories hinge around them, most especially the annual nursery/reception class Christmas nativity play; one of those ‘firsts’ that only take place on a few Christmases within one lifetime.
I was therefore surprised and saddened to recently read one-time free school founder Toby Young’s 2018 take on children’s nativity plays in The Spectator: “I never cease to wonder at all the parents up on their feet filming the entire performance…are they really going to afflict this on the grandparents” – because I am a grandparent who loves being ‘afflicted’ to such an extent that I always do my very best to attend in person.
The nativity play I remember best was a on a frosty day in what seems, since pandemic and lockdown, so long ago; the first such event for grandson two at the end of his first term in nursery, aged three. The joy in the hall was palpable – the love and pride of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, coming together with their memories of Christmas past and hopes for Christmas future.
As my youngest grandson slept peacefully beside me, the tableau began with a proud announcement from a tiny girl in her very best dress: ‘Mary had a baby’, and I was reminded once again that Christmas has always been about new life, and new beginnings.
As the nativity play got under way, other perennial scripts began to unfold. For example, one of the Magi had his vision almost totally obscured by a hat malfunction but nevertheless continued resolutely in his role, one of the sheep lost nearly all his wool, and my grandson (being one of the stars who announce the birth of the baby Jesus) began to realise that his costume was entirely obscuring his hands. This became particularly apparent when he had difficulty joining in the hokey-cokey, sung by the entire cast assembled in the stable, because it was their favourite song.
A wonderful time was had by all, in a glorious, mash-up Christmas celebration – which is precisely what human beings in Britain have been doing since they arrived here, whatever they called their winter solstice festival.
Due to pandemic lockdown, I had to wait until my youngest grandson’s second year in primary to attend his first nativity play, this time performed by Reception/Year 1. It was constructed in the style of Strictly Come Dancing, with the donkey, the inn keeper’s wife and Caesar as the judges, and the other characters typically found in the nativity play as the contestants. The angels were ballet dancers, the stars did a sort of hand-jive, the inn keepers did a tango, and the camels flossed.
The flossing camels were my own personal preference for the glitter ball. The audience were invited to cheer the kind, generous judges (the donkey and the inn keeper’s wife) and boo the nasty judge (Caesar). Then, at the end, Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to watch, reminding us that that the festival that marks the returning of the light is perennially rooted in the concept of new life, and new beginnings, which we’d just watched unfolding in front of us, in the shape of these tiny children having the most enormous fun, and learning so much in this creative fusion of Christmas past and Christmas present.
The circle game
Someone once asked me, do we mourn for our children when they are grown and gone to forge their own lives? It’s a question that I contemplated many times when my own children got to their late teens and early 20s. My initial experience of absent children was walking around silent, tidy bedrooms while the young people they belonged to were away at university.
I used to think of this as rather like being Mrs Darling in Peter Pan, with children who had flown away but would be back soon. Then, as summer came around, the ‘boings’ from the basketball hoop in the back garden would ring out again, alongside now deeper voices from young men playing there as they had for so many summers, walking in and out to get beers from the fridge rather than Cokes.
Then, as university days retreated into the past, the back garden fell silent as my children began to travel the globe. This was not so much of a period of mourning, more a wistful lull…
Last year, I read an article written by a mother who, after she took her son to university for his first year, had a repeating dream that she came home to find that he was a baby in his cot again. It wasn’t an online article, and there was no contact information for the author, but had I been able to do so, I would have replied well, that’s exactly how it happens, but it will be another baby who looks a bit like your son, although you will have to wait a little while longer for that: life is a circle game.
Now, for us, a child’s bed and boxes of toys can yet again be found in one of our bedrooms. And this year yet another baby slept there over this Christmas week, a little girl who will only just be 78 on the day the 21st century turns to the 22nd. I wonder how she and her family will celebrate that holiday season?
But, before then, there will be many more Christmases, interspersed by minor but memorable incidents that mark the procession of generations. The summer after my eldest grandson turned eight, I found him looking thoughtfully at the rusty basketball hoop on the back wall of our house. ‘Granny, have you got a basketball?’ he asked.
All the small things
Wherever you are in your own life journey, I hope you, too, have found some mundane but magical experiences to cherish over Christmas 2023, rather than letting them cynically pass you by like Mr Young.
In a decade when we are being so heavily buffeted by “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – Brexit, pandemic, recession, and the very worst government in living memory, I think it is very important for our mental health to remember that joy can still be found in ‘all the small things’ of life. Which I have found, as I grow older, often turn out to be the bigger things within our own life journeys, after all.