Tag Archive | Christmas

My Endless Quest to Recapture the Magic of Christmas

Last week a work colleague and I discussed how we had spent our respective Christmases this year. She has three sons and she said that they had really enjoyed it, which was the main thing.

It got me thinking about how magical Christmas had been when I was a child, and how we try every year to recapture that feeling, whether for our children or for ourselves. We frantically decorate trees and cakes, bake mince pies, play appropriate music, shop till we drop, overspending and pushing our credit cards beyond their normal elasticity. Working in retail, I’ve witnessed at first hand the frenzy of spending in the days leading to Christmas, but no matter how much effort we put into it, Christmas for adults never quite matches up to the magic it held for us as children.

The cynic in me knows now that the original Christian meaning of Christmas has been warped beyond all recognition, but as a child the juxtaposition of the fables and traditions surrounding this yearly event fell happily into place alongside each other. The birth of Jesus Christ, the story of generous Saint Nicholas, the pagan tree and Yuletide log – all of them snuggled up together, were added to by our parents, and are now coated in the rosy afterglow of our own fondly-remembered nostalgia. I’ve written elsewhere about my own family’s Christmas traditions.

Somehow, the long ago story of the Christ child born in a stable sat comfortably with the notion of a man in a red suit arriving on the roof in a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer. This strange man from the North Pole who dropped down our chimney with a sack full of toys was perfectly logical at the time, despite the fact that our chimney wasn’t very wide. It was magic, of course.

Once we realised who was masquerading as Father Christmas, things were still great, because we were children, we still got presents, and Christmas was fun. Even through high school, and during my three years at university when I still lived at home, we all loved the season and had a good time each Christmas.

In my early years of working, I enjoyed my first few Christmases, especially a spectacular one in the northern hemisphere, skiing in the Swiss alps with my boyfriend and his family. A magical Christmas-card Christmas that one was, surrounded by snow and log fires in our cosy wood-lined cabin, joined by various family and friends from around the world.

The following year that same boyfriend and I hosted the big family Christmas at our newly-bought house in Johannesburg. It was enormous fun and I knew that this was the pattern for the rest of my life: we would continue to host big family Christmas meals, enjoying lots of company and laughter, creating magical Christmases for the children we would one day have too…

Not so the next year. My wonderful boyfriend dumped me in August and by December I was barely back on my emotional feet. I think that was when Christmas started to become a little tarnished.

The next year was even worse. My father died in July and my sister got divorced in November. It was a sad, straggly family of survivors who got together on the 25th of December at my mother’s house and tried to pretend that all was merry and bright. It just wasn’t. My mother kept disappearing into the kitchen to “check the chicken” but once there she dissolved into tears, unable to cope with the first Christmas in twenty-eight years without her husband. My sister had reluctantly invited her ex-husband along for the day so that their children could have as normal a Christmas as possible. It was anything but normal and we were all relieved when the 26th dawned and it was finally over.

During the years when I lived in Cape Town, there followed three Christmases of utter loneliness that I still can’t bear to think about. I became a bit of a nomad after that, wandering around South Africa, wherever I could find work – mainly on touring big musicals. Career-wise it was a good move. Christmas-wise it was quite awful.

Things improved vastly when I settled in Durban, able to spend time with my mother and sister again. After my mother died, my sister filled the empty space and we had wonderful Christmases together until she and her second husband and their youngest child left for Australia. The following Christmas I spent with the remaining three of their grown up children, but by the next Christmas two more of them had moved overseas as well.

We still had a good Christmas, my oldest niece and I. For the first time in years we substituted the traditional Christmas pudding with a chocolate fondue instead. We still talk about it to this day. She’s been here on holiday for a few weeks now with her two sons, and we’ve had another big family Christmas in Australia.

So how was my Christmas this year? In the last few years I have come close to actually recapturing the magic of my childhood Christmases. Since I arrived in Australia, my Christmases have been fun-filled and family-filled. This year I moved into a cottage on my own and in December I unpacked my aged, beloved Christmas tree once more, and filled my new home with old memories, new decorations and magical hopes for the future.

I wish all my readers a happy, peaceful and prosperous 2019. May all your wishes magically come true!

The Magic of Stories About Christmas

One of my earliest memories of Christmas was when a favourite aunt (who always gave us wonderful presents) gave my sister and I each a copy of Clement Moore’s famous poem The Night Before Christmas in the form of a book, beautifully illustrated by Florence Sarah Winship. These books were presents that we were allowed to open on Christmas Eve (all other presents had to wait till the next morning). They subsequently became part of every Christmas Eve thereafter, because before long we both knew the poem by heart and could recite bits of it at random.

One Christmas Eve we dressed up as fairies (or was it elves?) and recited it to our parents from each side of the fireplace, next to the Christmas tree. We had copied the poem out onto handmade scrolls which we rolled importantly from one verse to the next. Some of these we spoke together, others individually. Rounds of applause followed and although the presentation may have been a little rough, we were extremely proud of ourselves!

Years later while browsing in a bookshop, I found a newer copy of the poem, this time illustrated by Tomie de Paola. Of course I added it to my book collection. Sometimes during the pre-Christmas season I page through both versions in order to re-live a little of that magic from so long ago.

I must have been about twelve years old when a teacher read us the Reader’s Digest abridged version of Norah Lofts’ How Far to Bethlehem? We were in a Christian school, so the whole class knew the story of the Nativity, but it was the different way in which it was told that appealed to us the most.

My imagination was fired up by the thought that I was getting some insight into the lives of those mysterious humans from far away, the Three Wise Men. Who knows who they really were? Wherever they came from and wherever they went afterwards, for a few days their visit to that stable has made them part of the story that has been handed down, in one form or another, for over two thousand years. No matter which way you look at it, there’s a good story there…

This brings me to another favourite book which I found in the children’s section of a bookshop a few decades back. Having no children myself, my justification for buying it was so that I could read it to my sister’s children. I did. They’ve all long since grown up, but every year I take out that book and re-read it because I love it so much. It’s called The Witness, written by Robert Westall and beautifully illustrated by Sophy Williams.

The Witness appeals to me because I love cats. It’s a secular story of an Egyptian cat far from her home, who gives birth to two kittens one harsh winter’s night while sheltering in a stable. Afterwards, she sees another mother – a human – who has given birth to a baby boy in the same stable. As a cat, she also sees the glorious angels hovering above the family of humans. The angels are amused that the animals can see them when the humans can’t.

Some days later, after the kittens have grown a little, there is a visit from three rich men who bring costly gifts for the human baby. They have travelled through many lands and recognise that the cat is from the temples of Egypt. They also warn the humans about King Herod before they leave.

The baby’s father later tells his wife that he has had a dream in which he was told to take the cat back to her home, but he doesn’t know where she lives. His wife points out that the cat is Egyptian, so the little family prepares to make the long journey to Egypt with all three cats…

To me, the magic of good storytelling is to take a story that may be familiar, but to tell it from a different point of view and provide a good twist to what might be a well-known ending.

Wherever you are this holiday season, and whether or not you celebrate Christmas, may you have a peaceful time, and enjoy reading!