Many things conspired to leave Julia feeling blue during the Christmas season. Now she awaits a post-holiday epiphany.
The colours of Christmas are traditionally red and green, the colour of the holly and its berries. This past Christmas was mainly white and blue, colours imposed on us by unforeseen falls of snow and a lack of heating fuel that meant we had to work hard to keep our fingers from turning blue.
This is the first year in my life where I couldn’t bring myself to put up Christmas decorations or send the usual round of Christmas Cards. I attributed my lack of Yuletide cheer to the moving experience we had just had. I mean that literally. We had spent four and a half years and tons of money renovating a tiny workman’s cottage which one of my friends termed a ‘bothy’ — a kind of shepherd’s refuge in the mountains. Yes, it was that bad. However, under our tender care it was transformed, Cinderella-like, into a beautiful bijou dwelling.
We moved in during August and September but experienced various difficulties with the heating boiler and the amount of electricity we could use. At the very moment we were quizzing the plumber and electrician, the snow started its inevitable squally descent and blocked not only far flung airports and trains but our main roads and side roads. No one in Europe is equipped for this so, as no plumber or electrician was on the horizon, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with pots and pans and ingredients until we gave up and moved back into the old house whose proclivities we were familiar with.
We slept in the one guest bedroom where I had left two beds. We used all the duvets and electric heaters findable and with a wonky oven and managed to cook our meals. We thought the heating gas might last until first week of January which is the first time they can deliver.
Forget the pretty table deco, I had no idea where it had been stored; the best damask cloth was trapped at the laundry by the snow. I couldn’t get out to find my usual pearlised paper on which I print my Christmas cards so everyone got a Round-Robin email. I felt no shame – I was too stressed by the coping.
Because Christmas is a great time to catch up with friends from afar, the cards soon arrived. Most of the news was happy enough – all about where people have travelled and what they have seen plus news of their grandkids and even great-grand kids with accompanying videos of dad dressed as Santa Claus.
It was all good family stuff reminding me strongly of the wonderful Christmases my mother had organised for us after the war, when everything was rationed. Each member of the family was allowed 125 grams of sweets or chocolates per week so mother used to buy them every week and hide them away until Christmas. Fruits and nuts were squirreled away too.
Christmas morning was an embarrassment of riches, the sideboard glowing and groaning with rare delights, tangerines and clementines, bananas and brazil nuts, dates and figs, almonds and apricots, hazelnuts and halva, Turkish delight, Cadbury’s Quality Street, Black Magic, gob-stoppers, aniseed balls, Pontefract Cakes and Liquorice Allsorts.
Our halls were decked with boughs of holly, our presents were in a big stocking hung over the fireplace (so, not many presents but precious) – the Christmas tree was for the town hall. My aunt in Ireland would send over a fresh turkey which we would have to pluck and stuff – none of your supermarket specially-fattened Butterball cardboard meat thingies.
Mother would have made the puddings in October and now they were put on to boil for our lunch. The day was full of excitement, steam, smoke from the coal fire, flames, warmth and general mirth: a Tiny Tim day, a Gaudeamus Igitur day, a Christ-is-Born day, a renewal of hope day, a Child’s Christmas in Wales day (see poemhunter.com for “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas).
This Christmas was not like that. I felt no joy but just a very deep-seated sadness that most young people in Britain and I daresay in Canada will not experience the magic of Christmas as I had done. Church bells no longer ring out, carol singers do not abound because our greetings are leavened with a huge dose of political correctness and our joy is confined to commercial celebrations. French schools have long abandoned Nativity plays, which now have to be performed in churches – such a shame. There is nothing more moving that watching tiny tots trying to remember their lines, mucking up, tripping over the angels wings and generally displaying that baby Jesus innocence we would all like them to carry throughout their lives.
My greatest moment of sadness came when I realised that there are people I didn’t hear from. Several old colleagues passed away suddenly last year and a few cards announced dread illnesses that are overtaking the few old friends I have left.
I am trying to be as urbane and forward-looking as Diane Athill,the sometime editor at Andre Deutsch. She is now in her 90s, living a full life in an old people’s home (rather a posh one, I think). She took up her pen at the age of 75 or so and I have just finished reading her book Somewhere towards the end.
Like Edith Piaf, Diane has no regrets and seizes each and every moment to enjoy. She has happily relinquished a few of those things we thought so necessary to our well being – a sex life, a doggy companion, intrepid travels. She no longer reads novels but only informative books (histories of…), putters about in the garden of the old people’s home, planting and weeding — and she writes a lot.
She is not raging against the dying of the light but peering into the gathering gloom with a reminiscent smile on her lips and contentment in her heart.
I hope 2011 shows me the way to do that. I await my epiphany, so to speak.
Photos of Julia’s Normandy house in the snow © J. McLean
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