Here we are on the fourth Sunday in Advent, with the fourth candle lit on our Advent wreath. Like many lovely Christmas traditions, this one originated in Germany:
Our understandings of what Christmas really is emphasize the differences between my two countries, starting with which day is considered the most important. In Germany, presents are brought in some regions by the Christ-child, and opened on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. It’s a time for ‘Besinnlichkeit’, which means quiet reflection: words which I think do not sit comfortably in an English-speaking brain.
Christmas Day, December 25, is the big day for me, and the best presents, I remember, were always the ones in the stocking which had been hung over the end of my bed. Other children were told that Father Christmas brought these presents, but our family was not so into Santa.
I knew it was actually my Mum who had been responsible for the tangerine in the toe, the comic rolled up and squeezed in lengthwise, the chocolate bar which I was allowed to eat in the middle of the night, the crayons and tiny games and toys. The night of Christmas Eve I always slept fitfully, waking up regularly to check if the stocking was still lying flatly at my feet, or if it was already bulging with presents. Knowing that opening those presents was just the start of what would be a wonderful day, and looking forward to a giant portion of Bread Sauce. If I was really lucky, we would be spending Christmas with my grandparents in Wales. Auntie Kath made the Bread Sauce there and it was the best in the world.
In 1964, I was a plump and bespectacled eight-year-old who loved dancing. My favourite book was ‘Ballet Shoes’ by Noel Streatfield.
I didn’t go to dance or ballet class, and was not an orphan, but that didn’t stop my dreams of being a ballerina. My Mum had made me a sort of practice outfit out of a white pillowslip with a slit cut in the top for my head to poke through and an old blue belt with an ‘S’ for a buckle, and I knew that my Christmas present was going to be pink ballet shoes and in my mind’s eye I was going to delight the entire family with my performances on Christmas Day.
It was a long drive from Hertfordshire to South Wales, this was before the Severn bridge was opened.
We stopped along the way somewhere near Gloucester and ate our sandwiches and drank tea from a thermos and turned into Barry Road as it was getting dark. We always pulled into Orchard Drive, the road before my grandparents’ house, to freshen up. My dad combed his hair, my mum applied fresh lipstick. She looked at herself in the mirror and shrieked:
“I’ve forgotten the presents! they are still on top of the wardrobe!”
My dad was the world’s best in Furious Looks, and looked at her darkly:
“Why did you say anything?”
I was silent in the back. I knew it was best at times like this to keep quiet, but surely even my dad realized I would notice the lack of pink ballet shoes the next day?
As it was, I was deposited at my grandparents and my parents rushed into Barry to get replacement presents. I remember my Mum got me a sewing basket (sewing not being one of my interests) and my dad, typically, chose a Bible. I was very disappointed. Nevertheless, here I am all these years later, a different person in a different country, sewing basket and dreams of being a ballerina long gone. But I can put my hand on that Bible immediately.
Long ago I realized that the date, December 25, wasn’t important for me. I don’t need to see my family on that day, or on any other day really, to know that I love them, and they love me. When I am sad that I haven’t seen my grandchildren in person this year I remember my Australian grandfather, who never even met any of his granddaughters.
In times of trouble, I know I can always turn to Sesame Street, a place where we can all feel better. So let’s all sing along with Ernie and Bert and hope for better times next year.
A good Christmas for you all, and a happy and healthy New Year!