Merry Christmas to one and all!
The premise of this one sounded like real Cheese on Toast but it unexpectedly won me over. Emma Thompson and Greg Wise were approached by Quercus to publish a book as a companion piece to their recent film Last Christmas, with the intention of raising money for Crisis. The book captures the huge variety in how we experience Christmas with fifty personal essays, mostly from celebrities who are presumably personal friends of Thompson and Wise themselves. Last Christmas is a collection of musings on Christmases past and on what we might hope for our festivities in the future. While this could have descended into a complete luvvie-fest, the two of them have managed to gather up a reasonable mix of voices so this is avoided. Just about.
If I’m honest, thinking about the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ is not really my thing. In fact if the subject ever comes up on the festive scheduling, I tend to turn off. Like most people, I grew up adoring Christmas and have slowly gone off it over time. Something about the crass commercialisation and generation of waste makes it hard to see the ‘magic’. It’s not that I dislike it, it’s just that putting so much pressure on a single day does rather guarantee disappointment. However, reading the reminiscences of past Christmases prompted some reflections of my own.
Christmas for me used to mean piling into a plane to Northern Ireland, usually on my actual birthday (three days before the Big Day). The plane would usually be delayed and we would potter round the very small airport and if I was lucky, I would get a new Ladybird book. The flight would be too short for me to take my tray table down so I didn’t get to play with whatever my birthday present was. But then – thank goodness – we would arrive! Getting to see my grandparents was always a massive festive highlight and in the very early years, their Labrador was another huge draw. They also had an actual chimney as opposed to the gas fire that we had at home and I was always more sanguine about Father Christmas being able to squeeze down there. I remember setting up Santa’s snack in a state of high excitement and then sneaking down in the morning before anyone else in the house had woken up. Memories blur but the year of my Sylvanian windmill was a real stand-out occasion. As was the time I got up so early that I had to read my new Asterix book in the dark, then I went back to bed, slept, got up and still nobody else was awake. My point is that although it has been over twenty years since I had a Northern Irish Noel, it is still what springs to mind when I think of Christmas.
Love it or loathe it, Christmas is important to us all. Where the other people’s experiences in Last Christmas had points of convergence with my own, it really resonated. One man mentioned how he had never really taken to chocolate advent calendars but always preferred the ones with the pictures. A chocolate advent calendar looks steadily tattier and tattier as December goes on while a picture one becomes only more glorious. There was one that we used to get out every year that featured a Victorian street scene – I really hope that I can track it down again one day. This year I was given a wonderful Harry Potter Lego advent calendar which has been terrific fun because again, it has been lovely to construct something in the build up to Christmas. A very dear friend also made us an advent calendar and I am so excited about making this a family tradition in the future; it is beautiful in a way that a chocolate advent calendar never is. Basically, I’ve enjoyed the three or four chocolate calendars that I have had over the course of my life but I’ve never felt the loss without one. There are no surprises with chocolate.
Funnily enough, my all-time favourite advent tradition used to be reading A Christmas Carol across December. My mother and I read it each year from when I was eight. She dropped out about seven years later when she remarried but I have kept it going give or take. It’s odd because Dickens’ view of Christmas embodies a lot of what I hate most about the season – the idea of being nice to people for only one month of the year, putting a lot of pressure on a single day itself, the glorification of Charles Dickens etc., etc. Still, I love so many other things about it – the humour, the quirks of the characters and that core message of get off your arse and have some sodding humanity. Reading the stories in Last Christmas from Crisis volunteers and also those who had used the service only served to underline the point that A Christmas Carol still has a lot to teach us. On Christmas morning, Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted in praise of the birth of our Saviour Lord. This is the same Jacob Rees-Mogg who finds the increasing use of food banks ‘uplifting’. Hmm.
Like any book, Last Christmas has its stand-out moments. I was particularly caught by Victoria Coren Mitchell’s reference to how when a Christmas goes wrong, there’s nothing you can do. You can’t ‘go again’. You ‘just have to wait a year and hope it’s different’. Like most people, I’ve had a few iffy 25th of Decembers. There was a reason the Northern Irish Christmases stopped – the season of life turned and it was time to change with it. A now sadly passed elderly relative and I once joked together grimly that she and I had developed our own tradition of single-mindedly watching television to try our best to ignore family tension. Around five years ago, I recognised that the season had changed once more. 2016 was a revelation – I remember it so fondly. I woke up with my partner and our first words of the day were to whisper Merry Christmas to each other. The meal passed off without a hitch and without tears. I knitted and played with my colouring books and in the afternoon, we all got back into our pyjamas and watched Harry Potter films back to back.
Our festive season has changed again with the arrival of the Astronaut in 2018. Reading Last Christmas made me think about what I want Christmas to be for him. His first Christmas passed without him noticing thing. This year was different. He did not understand, he was out of routine and he found a lot of it over-whelming. There was also just so much stuff. It was magical to see him playing with his cousins but then he also clung to me and cried if I left the room. I loved how one of the Last Christmas authors described his wish that his daughter experience ‘the dancing lunacy of Christmas joy, the comfort, the giddiness’. I want that for my child too. But I will definitely be reflecting more carefully in the future about how to help him get through a week that can be over-stimulating even for adults.
A good Christmas leaves you feeling loved, recharged and full of excitement for the coming year. It’s so easy to be cynical about the optimism of a day when we are all supposed to gather together and show kindness to our fellow man, but it’s such a beautiful idea. Last Christmas reflected that the seasonal festivities can offer a light even for people experiencing the darkest of times, no matter your creed or belief. This year, I have been feeling incredibly grateful for my own good fortune in my beautiful family and wonderful friends. I feel very lucky to be so surrounded by love. When I think though about my best Christmases, they all have one thing in common. Connection. Spending time with those you love. When I look to the future, I think that my best way forward for Christmases are to keep it small. Minimal fuss. If you have a choice between making it yourself or using a packet, use the packet. If you have comfy pants, wear them. If there’s a vintage film on television, watch it. And if you have a baby in your life – don’t be afraid to just throw the day out the window and do whatever you need to do.
I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to watch Last Christmas the film in a particular hurry. I’ve discovered the rather literal way in which they’ve interpreted Wham’s lyrics and it doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy. But Last Christmas the book was a definite hit for me. In sharing stories from people who could come through terrible adversity and still feel grateful for Christmas, I felt that I could have a more rounded appreciation for what the season offers. It also reminded me that for all that the book captured the experiences of a diverse range of people, in the words of Jo Cox, we do all have more in common than that which divides us – not a bad thing to remember for over Christmas. Basically – Crisis does some extremely important work and buying this book would help them out a bit. It’s well worth a look. We may be a little too late for Christmas stocking-fillers this year, but do buy it in for the next time it rolls around.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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on January 1st 1970
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