Scrolling through Instagram this morning I came across a clip of The Little Drummer Boy being piped by men in kilts in Edinburgh. Instantly I was transported to my childhood, to those Christmasses of long ago, so full of tradition and excitement, and dare I say, authenticity. I felt the familiar ache of longing for my mother, irrational when she has been gone for 48 years, the same age she was when she died. I miss her still, her eccentricity, her abundant laughter, some of which I have inherited, her intrepid personality always willing to step into the unknown. She made everything fun, while still making sure she instilled a moral code that she believed would get me through this business called life. She was widowed at 34. My father who was older than she by sixteen years died of a massive heart attack on the 10 December 1962, leaving her bereft and me lost. My memories of him are few, I was 9, but I know he was damaged by the war as so many of his generation were, and so he lived life as if there was no tomorrow, and on that day tomorrow arrived
I am sad that she has not been here to meet her grandsons, of whom she would be inordinately proud. I know how she would have cheered us all on and made us laugh until we cry, no matter how rutted the road we were on.
Those years in Swaziland, as it was then, we did not have the bedazzling array of decorations, gifts, bling and whatever that abounds today. We cut trees from the pine forests, we used candles for lights, lots of tinsel and crinkle paper cut and made into daisy chains, with the odd shiny bauble. Streamers made of twisted ropes of coloured crepe would be hung across the ceiling and pelmets, the fireplace would boast stockings, Christmas cards would be proudly displayed (and counted), we would rush to send one more to someone we received from but hadn’t sent to and pray it got there before Christmas Day, and gifts wrapped in pretty paper gradually and tantalisingly mounted up under the tree.
As children we vied for roles in nativity plays, waited anxiously for our names to be called at prize givings, Sunday School, School, and the local Country Club. We knew all the carols by heart and the Christmas story was told over and over again to rapt attention. Does anyone outside of church ever mention Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus these days? ‘Merry Christmas’ has been replaced by ‘Happy Holidays’ and the spirit of peace and goodwill engendered by the Christ child has been replaced by unholy consumerism, carols by modern gospel numbers or jingling sleighs that have no relevance in this part of the world. So sad.
In Mbabane the annual Carols by Candlelight took weeks of preparation. A massive tree was lit up at the entrance to the ampitheatre that was Coronation Park. We had to each bring a present to place under it for the children in hospital. Seats were ledges cut into the hillside and we sat on blankets and cushions that we brought with us. From there we looked down onto the stage, where a number of tableaux would be staged, while carols led by the local choir were sung. Our candles flickered in reflection of the stars above and it was a magical night.
The moment I hear the cicadas begin their song, nostalgia fills me, and the essence of those years hovers at the edge of my consciousness. I miss the hype and the ceremony, I miss the traditional carols, the shepherds watching their flocks by night, the babe in the manger, the little town of Bethlehem, the star so bright and the three wise men. I miss hearing the story of the desperate search for a bed, the shepherds awed into silence by the angels serenading them, and I miss wondering what a swaddling cloth is.
Would it not be apt in this time of war and division and anger and hatred, to bring into the public consciousness the true meaning of Christmas, the spirit of peace and goodwill that are the origin of the season, the reason it exists? If each one of us pushed for it, could we turn the tide from shallow merrymaking to a pertinent sharing of a valuable lesson of love and joy to the world? Could we? Could we encourage shops to display nativity scenes instead of baubles and chocolate Father Christmasses, beautiful angels spraying light instead of displays of gifts that entice and that many can’t afford. Can we get back to being real about Christmas – Christ being the beginning and the centre?
I would love to try – will you join me?