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.
We didn’t have much to be happy about by today’s standards, but happy we were. That’s 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 on 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 butter and jam in rare moments of luxury.
I have been trying to figure out what made Christmas on the edge of poverty so happy for our small family of six before death and time scattered us to dust or far away places. I have no desire to return to the sometimes-lean days of childhood, but I wouldn’t mind seeing restored a few still well-remembered things.
Things like the Salvation Army band playing Christmas carols on grimy, rain-wet streets with crowds huddled under gas-lit streetlamps – 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 launch 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 grand 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 spiritual 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 music 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 in the old hymns composed to lift the human spirit. They have become homogenized background sounds, unheard and unheeded, by stressed shoppers trying to buy Christmas spirit.
It would, I think, be wonderful to see a voluntary ban on Christmas music until at the earliest December 15. Merchants can keep their marketing strategies and push for ever-higher Christmas sales. But let them have the good grace to leave what remains of the spiritual side of Christmas to the churches and downtown week-before-Christmas Salvation Army band street concerts if such bands still exist.
One other thing merchants could contribute to recapturing lost Christmas values is restoring 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, the sheets she washed, ironed, 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 ever higher “charge it” burdens, but I think merchants, with genuine Christmas goodwill, could lead us back to “layaway” 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 carolling before December 15,” well, I would wish them all the most genuine Loving Christmas!
(The thoughts expressed above were first published in 2004. They remain unchanged as I wish this Happy Christmas to all my readers as we spend just a few days exchanging and receiving the greatest of gifts— the love of family and close friends.)