Why lure of fes­tive ‘fancy’ will never die Catherine Deveney

The Press and Journal (Moray) - - AGENDA -

Such a bit­ter­sweet month, De­cem­ber: the del­i­cate scent of clemen­tine or­anges and the sil­very flash of tin­sel and the dance of fairy lights in the win­ter dark, all of it threaded to­gether with the cheer of a Christ­mas yet to come and the aching, aching nos­tal­gia of all the Christ­mases gone by. It’s a month for be­ing a par­ent, of con­sciously gath­er­ing your brood around, yet some­how that grown-up feel­ing is in­fused with be­ing a child again, and the mem­ory of par­ents and what they once did.

The ghost of my dec­o­ra­tion-lov­ing fa­ther hov­ers over the old-fash­ioned glass baubles when I pull the dusty Christ­mas box from its hid­ing place; the ghost of my mother whis­pers in my ear in the su­per­mar­ket as I be­gin the an­nual squir­relling of items that will come in handy over the fes­tive sea­son.

“Grandma lives!” says my daugh­ter with a de­li­cious, ma­li­cious glint in her eye that would have been wor­thy of the old girl her­self.

She likes to tease that I am be­com­ing like my mother.

Moll was ec­cen­tric, acer­bic, some­times hi­lar­i­ously snotty – and baf­flingly ir­ra­tional for a smart dame. Not like me at all.

I protest ev­ery time she says it, re­mem­ber­ing the ar­ro­gance of my youth and the feel­ing that how­ever my life turned out, it would be dif­fer­ent to the old guys. Bet­ter.

In a shop, I spot a card that I buy for my daugh­ter and give with equiv­a­lent rel­ish to hers.

It has a pic­ture of an ec­cen­tric old lady on it and a younger, iden­tikit ver­sion be­side her. “No mat­ter how hard you try,” it says, “you end up like your mother.” No es­cape, dear.

There’s some­thing in that: the rolling of the gen­er­a­tions; the re­lent­less­ness of time; our place in the cy­cle. Christ­mas is al­ways a re­minder. Per­haps it’s be­cause the Christ­mas story is es­sen­tially the story of par­ents and chil­dren.

“The Holy Fam­ily” as we were taught to say rev­er­ently as chil­dren, and didn’t we say it with such in­no­cent be­lief ? A baby in a manger, stead­fast par­ents keep­ing guard, and bright stars from the east.

All a re­flec­tion, of course, of the ul­ti­mate parental re­la­tion­ship: God the Fa­ther and his chil­dren.

Well, I don’t know about any of that, though I can hope in it.

The re­li­gious be­lief got harder and, ul­ti­mately, my jour­nal­is­tic ca­reer got en­twined with un­cov­er­ing sex­ual abuse in the church and per­haps worse, con­tin­ued abuse of power. The stag­ger­ing cru­elty and ruth­less­ness in­volved buf­feted the rem­nants of a pre­car­i­ous faith, leav­ing it flick­er­ing like a can­dle flame in the wind.

Some­how, in De­cem­ber, it feels like the em­bers glow a lit­tle fiercer. The Christ­mas cock­tail is a po­tent mix of tra­di­tion and nov­elty with a great big splash of magic.

In the first mo­ments of a De­cem­ber morn­ing, when the kitchen is quiet and cold still, it all comes flood­ing back.

The cof­fee ma­chine is whirring but the years are spin­ning back, and I am walk­ing through snow to church on Christ­mas Eve as mid­night ap­proaches.

My mother and fa­ther are there, solid and real again, and there is noth­ing to fear. The snowflakes are swirling and I want to be home again, but there is safety deep in­side be­cause they are there, and there is the prom­ise of my mother’s home-made sausage rolls and mince pies on our re­turn.

And when, as an adult, that feel­ing of safety goes, the in­stinct is to pro­vide it for your own chil­dren – and maybe recre­ate the il­lu­sion for your­self in the process.

If you have lost some­one this year, Christ­mas will be es­pe­cially poignant. But there is some­thing so life-af­firm­ing about this time, the gen­tle­ness of the sen­ti­ments, the spe­cial kind of peace that doesn’t ex­ist at other times of year, that it is worth seiz­ing the mo­ment for what it is, cel­e­brat­ing it not with a sense of loss but a sense of the pres­ence of those who are no longer here, cel­e­brat­ing for them and with them. Per­haps the great­est thing Christ­mas brings is a sense of hope and op­ti­mism when we don’t even know what we are hop­ing for, or in.

In­vari­ably on win­ter morn­ings, there are words from a Thomas Hardy poem, The Oxen, that run through my mind. I might not think about them in any other month, but ev­ery Christ­mas, they come back to me. If each month is a verse of that year’s song, Hardy’s words pro­vide my De­cem­ber cho­rus. De­scrib­ing the nativity, Hardy re­flects that, “so fair a fancy few would weave in these years!” (And how much more true that is in our own times.) Yet, some­how, the lure of ‘the fancy’ never quite dies. Maybe, when it boils down to it, we are all ag­nos­tics try­ing to make sense, and per­haps there’s even some com­fort in that. “…..Yet, I feel,” Hardy writes,

“If some­one said on Christ­mas Eve, Come; see the oxen kneel…

I should go with him in the gloom, Hop­ing it might be so.”

My mother and fa­ther are there, solid and real again, and there is noth­ing to fear

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