Christmas Eve was the most exciting day of the year when I was a child. I don’t think anything has quite lived up to it since. On Christmas Day itself the house would fill and overflow with aunts, uncles, friends, cousins, my formidable Grandmother, and anyone else who could squeeze in. But on Christmas Eve we were alone in the house, my parents and I, and it was very quiet, the way soldiers describe the calm before a great battle. The anticipation was almost overwhelming.
In retrospect, there wasn’t much to anticipate. Compared to a modern Christmas it was a poor affair, materially speaking. We’re talking about London in the 1940s, just after the war. Back in those days, we hadn’t yet learned how to wage wars without consequences. We had strict food and fuel rationing, and new toys scarcely existed. But somehow my parents managed to put on a Christmas with homemade gifts and decorations, and food that was hoarded and stretched out. We had to compensate for the lack of material things with sociability. This explains why material things are so popular.
What stays in my mind about Christmas then is how dark it was. Everyone used coal fires for heat, so the air outside was full of smoke and the buildings were blackened. Indoors the lighting was dim, as an economy and as a matter of habit left over from the wartime blackout. When the uncles arrived and lit their cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, the smoke indoors became as thick as it was outdoors. It must have been quite Victorian in that way. We didn’t have any white Christmases that I can recall. We had gray Christmases, gray fading to black. Now I’m older I understand why my family and all the others celebrated Xmas so enthusiastically, the way we did. We were doing what we could to push back the winter darkness, as people have done for tens of thousands of years, pushing back the darkness and the cold.
Being the only male child in the house I was treated as very special, and I believed I was. This delusion has now passed, but it was nice while it lasted. I was showered with small but tantalizing gifts. My parents had told me a rather improbable story about the delivery system for these gifts, involving a very fat man and a very narrow fireplace. But this just enhanced the excitement. Would he get stuck? Would he get roasted, because the fire burned night and day?
The gifts were small, but miraculous. Best of all was a ballpoint pen, sent by my only adventurous aunt who was living in America. Ballpoints were almost unknown in England at that time, and the extraordinary novelty of this gadget made me the star of my primary school class, something that I had never been able to achieve through my academic or social skills. We particularly valued the ballpoint pen for its enchanting ability to write upside down, something you couldn’t do with a dip pen without having the ink run up your arm. When I was eight years old I spent so many hours writing upside down that I have suffered from vertigo ever since. Nor did my magic American ballpoint ever seem to run out of ink. Modern ballpoints won’t write upside down, and they seem to run out of ink after only a few pages, yet another symptom of the decline of western civilization.
Fire was a theme at Christmas. There were the open fires that sometimes set ablaze the carpet, the chimney, or the cat. There were candles, and some families still had candles on trees, a wonderful incendiary combination. Everybody smoked and tossed matches and cigarette butts about. There were paper chains, and wrapping paper everywhere. Photographs were also risky because flash bulbs were unobtainable. We used magnesium powder that produced a bright, intense flash, hot enough to ignite anything or anybody that came too close. And if all that failed to start a conflagration there was the ritual lighting of the pudding. The prospect of a fire, for a small boy, was almost as exciting as the prospect of Father Christmas himself. Families more nervous than mine kept buckets of sand and water placed strategically in the hallways.
Christmas Eve always feels like the edge of something important, which it is – the tipping point of the year when nostalgia is inevitable and even obligatory. It may seem irrational to feel nostalgic for the rather grim Christmas of 1947, but rationality has nothing to do with it.