There were a few white Christmases when I was growing up in England’s industrial Midlands, but not many. For the most part Christmas weather was chimney-smoke dreary, wet, and cold.
But that was just the weather, not the spirit of the times.
By today’s standards we didn’t have much to be happy about, but happy we were. Even with a father out of work in the great depression of the 1920s, and a mother trying to raise four children while taking in other people’s laundry, or scrubbing other people’s kitchen floors to keep bread – and some joyous days, butter – on the table.
They were hard times for my parents, but I don’t remember them being hard, for we children. We were sometimes hungry, but never desperately so. There always seemed to be a slice of bread and “dripping” or, in rare moments of luxury, butter and jam. And on Christmas Day a wonderful feast of chicken stew with dumplings the fowl being supplied my grandfather who had a small holding three miles in the country. Astute cooks will know the difference between a chicken for roasting and a fowl past egg bearing age for stewing.Hungry children ask for seconds.
I have been trying to figure out what made Christmas on the edge of poverty so happy for our small family of five, before deaths and time scattered us to dust or faraway places. I have no desire to return to the sometimes-lean days of childhood, but I wouldn’t mind seeing restored some still well remembered things.
Like the Salvation Army Band playing Christmas carols on grimy, rain-wet, streets with crowds huddled under gas-lit street lamps to listen and sometimes join in. Only readers old enough to remember childhood before new-fangled electric radios piped Christmas music into every home will understand. Those were the days when the first carols were heard only a few days before Christmas; when a boy soprano could send O Holy Night echoing through the shadows of an old church’s vaulted ceiling like an angel singing; when most of us could sing along with the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah. And some of us still can.
Radio, and later television, relieved us of the thirst for street corner brass band Christmas music, or the walk to church on Christmas Eve for a feast of carols. Sure, we can still find carol services in local churches and cathedrals but they have, alas, had their beauty – and their inspiration – diluted by the tidal wave of Christmas musak pumped out by radio, television and the ubiquitous piped music of the mall. Christmas carols swamp us from early November, and long before Christmas week we become overwhelmed, senses deadened, to any message from old hymns composed to lift the human spirit. They have become homogenized background sounds, ignored and unheeded, by stressed shoppers trying to buy the Christmas spirit.
It would be wonderful to see a voluntary ban on Christmas music until, at the earliest, December 15. Merchants could keep their marketing strategies and push for ever-higher Christmas sales, but have the good grace to leave what remains of the spiritual side of Christmas to the churches. It would bring me joy to see more downtown, week-before-Christmas, Salvation Army Band street concerts.
One other thing merchants could contribute to recapture lost Christmas values would be restoration of the old “lay away” plan – the pay before you take delivery scheme – that saw even the poorest of families able to buy Christmas gifts and wake up on Boxing Day debt free.
When I was the youngest lad in the family I had to accompany my mother and sister to the street market every Saturday morning, dreading at every step that I would meet a derisive schoolmate. The most important stop was at “The Co-operative”, a department store where Co-op members were encouraged to start in January to “lay away” for next Christmas. Every Saturday mother would buy a stamp for her most carefully protected possession “the Co-op stamp book.” The money for her stamps came from the floors she scrubbed; and the sheets she washed, ironed, and folded immaculately.
Come Christmas week she would have enough stamp money laid away to provide every member of her family with a present – including a new clay pipe and a stick of evil smelling black tobacco for my dad. My first bike – a Raleigh three speed – when I was 14 must have cost her acres of scrubbed floors, and a multitude of crisp white sheets. But when I got it in 1937 with a “Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday” message, it was already paid for.
It was important to her – and to the merchants who served her – that there should always be enough money to pay the Christmas bills – before Christmas. Debt, both banks and merchants taught us back then, was bad.
I have given up on banks with their greedy credit card inducements to create ever higher “charge it” burdens, but I think merchants, with genuine Christmas good will, could lead us back to “lay away” debt free days. It would be a great Christmas gift to offer their customers. And if they gift-wrapped it with a promise of “no pablum caroling before December 15”, I would wish them all a PROSPEROUS AND VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS – and thanks for at least trying to create a debt free society.
(First published in 2004. Public – and government – personal debt continues to expand. My hopes remain firm, but alas, still only as a dream.)