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Black Lamb


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Angelus ad virginem

December 1st, 2004


As I grow older I find that what the experience of Christmas has lost in intensity, it has made up for in duration. When I was a little kid, Christmas day was the most exciting day of the year, but the excitement and pleasure only lasted from bedtime on the 24th to bedtime on the 25th. For some reason, the earlier preparatory activities never really stirred me. Nativity plays and singing Christmas carols at school were fun, but not more fun than other things we did at other times of year. Making decorations with my big brother and sister was a bit nerve-racking because of the high standard of workmanship they required, and became something of a chore. I wasn’t allowed responsibility for decorating the tree until I was already in my teens, by which time the activity had lost its capacity to thrill. Only the Day itself was special, and once it was over, it was over. Maybe eating cold turkey and pickled onions in front of the TV on the evenings of the 26th, 27th, and, if we were lucky, the 28th could prolong the excitement a little – but not much.

Nowadays there are very few things that stop me sleeping at night, the way I couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve then. The day of the 25th has become, for the most part, a time for doing my duty, going through the motions of enjoying myself in order to satisfy other people’s notions of how one should be at Christmas. Left to myself, I would spend the day quietly on my own, but I am usually not allowed to. One of my best Christmases as an adult was one I spent with Mother, just the two of us, a couple of years after my father died. We had roast turkey and sprouts for lunch — rather in the way we might have had roast lamb or roast chicken and sprouts on any other day — and carried on much as normal the rest of the day. And since we were neither of us alone, and couldn’t therefore be perceived as being a poor lonely pathetic widow or a poor pathetic lonely bachelor, we were safe from hassle from neighbors or relations who would have tried to bully us into taking part in rebarbative jollity that would have ruined the whole day for us.

In compensation, I find that the excitements of Christmas have now spread out over the season and diversified. If the 25th is no longer particularly special to me, other aspects of Christmas, in their more diffuse way, now are. I think, too, that for the most part, the new pleasures are the result of associations acquired as an adult, not as a child, which is why they follow a different timetable from my childish Christmases, and usually involve different fetish objects and rituals.

In part, this is the inevitable result of living abroad, where they do things differently. Here in Rome, for example, the celebrations, though less hectic, go on for much longer, without the concentration on one special day that I experienced as a child. The most important meal of the period is dinner on Christmas Eve, and the distribution of presents to children, at least traditionally, takes place at Epiphany. On my first Christmas Day in Italy, back in 19–, I was given cappelletti in brodo at lunch, and so now, when the first storms of autumn arrive, and we start making chicken soup with pasta in it — after so many years of yuletide cappelletti in brodo it’s a conditioned response — I come over all emotional with the first intimations of approaching Christmas, and the first sense-reminders of Christmases past.

Christmas music, which left me comparatively cool as a kid, now has more power over me. In the Middle East I happened to have to do with choirs that took trouble to find interesting new music to sing — new to me, anyway — and wanted to make a special fuss over Christmas, for obvious reasons. In Saudi Arabia, after all, any outward manifestation of Christianity is, very properly, against the law, so even the most atheistical westerners were all for Christmas. There was no point in explaining to the locals that there wasn’t much of the Feast of the Incarnation left in it, that Yule had got its own back, and turned this mid-December feast back into a pagan fire festival again. Indeed that would have made them even keener to ban it. The result of repression and nostalgia was that from the middle of November on, most years, I could be out every night rehearsing, singing, playing, and performing, and so experienced Advent with an intensity it had never had anywhere before — or since. Carols like “People look east,” or the soupy 1950s Christmas numbers of Alfred Burt, or that fourteenth-century three-part “Angelus ad virginem” in The Oxford Book of Carols can make me tingly in the way that “Away in a manger” hasn’t got a hope of doing.

Some of the new rituals, though, are not imposed by circumstances, but are more the fruit of being able as an adult to do more as I please. Many years, I have stayed home for the 25th itself, amused other people, had other people amuse me — but then, on the 27th, duty done and having no work to do, I have been able to head off to freedom on my own, to one of those Habsburg capitals — Madrid, Vienna or Brussels — that are my favorite destinations for mid-winter holidays. I hate cold weather, except in Vienna and Brussels, where it brings on that extra buzz of energy and well-being these cities have almost always given me.

If all these Christmas pleasures have been acquired as an adult, I don’t see why more shouldn’t be added in due course. For a couple of years in the Eighties I shared a flat with a couple of girls from Australia and New Zealand, and when we were at one point looking for a new flat mate, they were quite keen that it should be someone from the southern hemisphere. “Why?””I wondered. “Well,” Sally said, “people who at the first breath of spring start to feel all crimbly have, whether they like it or not, something important in common. It matters more than you would think.” My next posting is likely to be in South America, and one of the attractions of the place is, indeed, this hope that not only the first mists of autumn, but also the first flush of green on the willows, will in due course, make me too come over all crimbly. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Christmas Issue, Darrel | Link to this Entry


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