By Christmas, everyone in a school is exhausted. The term has been long, the weather often bleak, and Christmas itself is a huge production, particularly for primary school teachers though, mind you, they do get shedloads of presents to wheelbarrow out to their cars, or at least they did, until someone decided that it might lead to favouritism. (Duh! I might have liked a child better for a Caribbean cruise, but not for a mug that said ‘I thrive on stress’ – I really liked that one anyway, in case she’s reading). There’s nativities and concerts and plays and outings to the panto; there’s church services and staff parties and presents for the janitors, if one has any sense; there’s speeches to write and script to learn and, for the later chunk of my career there was the Christmas Event.
The Christmas Event was my fault. Given that 90% of Scottish kids never voluntarily go anywhere near a church, I suggested that maybe every second year we could have a secular event rather than a religious one. It was a terrible mistake, really – going next door to the church and singing carols was so EASY and gave most of the kids an opportunity to rest, whereas the Christmas event had to be ORGANISED. And really, by the time you get to it, the young people are exhausted too, from exams and parties and sport and drink and the pursuit of love, and, to be honest, there probably isn’t much that would entirely engage their attention on a school stage that didn’t involve food or money being thrown at them by a selection of celebrities in a state of undress. Still, they were kind young people, so we got by.
In order to apologise to Ailsa, whose job it was to organise this thing, I always gave an address of some sort. It filled in a slot. I tried to be amusing and thoughtful but by the time I wrote it, usually the day before, I was so tired I could hardly see. There were moments, obviously, of great joy, usually occasioned by the Nursery Nativity (a fairly insane event which left parents delirious with glee, as some child – a sheep, a tree or the Mother of God yelled out ‘Hello Granny, hellloooo graaaannny’ causing Granny, full of love and wonder, to shout back) or by the Junior School Nativity, a very, very different affair, with production values worthy of Cameron Mackintosh, actual choreography and lovely costumes. I will not readily forget the Three Wise Men from P2 – one sweet child, one dilly and one sportsman, who was clearly in charge. The dilly forgot his gift, staring blankly into the lights at the front of the stage until the squat sporty boy, destined for great leadership roles in the future shouted ‘Get your gift’ at him, thrusting his own myrrh at the poor child as an example.
Anyway, one year at the ‘Christmas Event’ I gave this talk.
‘When I was younger, I used to get very excited about Christmas; when I say younger, I don’t mean when I was eight or ten – I mean up until I was about twenty-seven, only a few years ago. I wasn’t brought up in a religious family, and I wasn’t even brought up in a very sentimental family. I used to get excited – often to the point I felt bilious – at the prospect of eating, drinking and the endless possibilities of new stuff. Our house was filled with Christmas decorations of the most kitsch variety, including a remarkably noisy Snowman’s head, which was put on the outside door and which blared ‘Merry Christmas’ every time anyone came close to it, and of which I was particularly afraid.
Between the ages of zero and about ten, Christmas followed the same pattern every year. We would get up at about four o’clock in the morning to open the presents. My mother liked sleeping and was often in a mood that varied between pretending to be jolly and actually sleeping. My father, the life and soul, would have set everything up beautifully to make sure we got exactly what we wanted – our Christmas lists being carefully edited earlier to fit a generous but not unlimited budget. My brother and I would then play with whatever we’d got, my father would cook and eat breakfast, and my mother would sleep, so we were all, in essence, doing what we liked best.
Later we would watch Laurel and Hardy on the telly, then get dressed and go to my grandparent’s house – my mother’s parents lived in Stirling and gave us Christmas lunch and so did my dad’s parents, who would come there too. On the long drive to Stirling – this being before the M9 was even thought of – we would play a game where we watched out for kids on new bikes, out riding them on Christmas morning – and we used to see a hundred of them on the road to Stirling every year. There we would sit down to Christmas lunch, being served in the order that Jenny, my mother’s mother, liked us – or at least that was our family game. Certainly, I always came several people after my tall blonde brother, but edged in before either my dad or my grandfather, her husband, so I thought I did pretty well.
There was, of course, Christmas pudding – made by my incredibly aged spinster Auntie Meg and full of silver threepenny bits which were dutifully collected – occasionally from the back of my throat, at the end of the meal, to be recycled for the next year. But the highlight of the meal for me was the trifle – the finest trifle ever known to man and I am very, very , very keen on good trifle. It came from Stirling Home Bakeries, now sadly closed down, and was a massive thing, enough for twenty or twenty-five. At the end of the day, when our second set of presents had been duly packed in the car, my gran would give my mother the trifle to take home. One Boxing Day morning, when I was about eight, I got up and ate the rest of that glorious trifle; I got into terrible trouble, but I was happy.
After we’d had our lunch, Santa would come. He would appear outside my gran’s sitting-room window, and tap on the glass. Being a child of nervous disposition, I was always terrified. Then he would come in and distribute the presents. I continued to be terrified. Santa was, in this instance, my grandfather, a retired coal miner who had fought in the Great War- my Papa Joe – and one year I caused great hilarity, as Santa, went out the door to his sleigh, which was, by necessity, parked some distance away…by commenting that Santa was wearing Papa Joe’s slippers. Being a kindly soul, I always thought it sad that Papa Joe missed Santa’s visits and told him so.
I have been thinking a lot about this very recently, because on Saturday I transferred my gran, Jenny, now 96, into an old folks’ home, and I did so with great relief – her life of late, has not been so filled with family or friends; her eyes have gone, she doesn’t eat well and so on – but she still talks with great happiness about these Christmases, forty years ago. While the central theme of today’s event is the child, and so I have told you about my childhood, we should spare a thought too for all the old folk at Christmas time – as the song by the American singer John Prine says:
‘You know old trees just grow stronger
Old rivers grow wilder every day
But old people, they just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say
Hello in there, hello.’
Many of you will have elderly neighbours, elderly relatives or elderly people you sit next to on the bus. They may be lonely at Christmas. It would be good of you to say ‘hello in there’ to them.
I hope you all have a truly wonderful Christmas. Thank you.’
Now, I was really pleased with that, and thus with myself. There was, as customary, a mild but appreciative bit of applause and a lot of smiley faces, which I allowed myself to think were to do with the amusing but thoughtful content of my speech rather than the blindly obvious reason which was that that was the end of the event and the kids were then released for two glorious weeks.
This was all short-lived. I stepped outside into a chilly but sunny playground and started saying ‘Have a lovely Christmas’ to anyone who passed, mostly fleeing towards fun.
And then Dominic came up. He stood in front of me, smiled very sympathetically as if at an object of pity and said, ‘Hello in there.’