Christmas Reminiscences
and Reflections

What, I wonder, is your earliest memory of Christmas? Mine is undoubtedly the moment when, in the wee small hours of one Christmas morning long ago, my exploring toe under the blanket met the crackling resistance of a full stocking at the end of the bed. Oh joy! - Santa had actually and mysteriously come! That heady mixture of fulfilled expectation, excitement and sheer magic was one of the defining moments of my childhood, and I donít think any other Christmas experience has ever quite equalled it.
          Other memories run it pretty close though. Some decades later my parents-in-law introduced me to the delights of a candle-lit Christmas tree. They had lived in Vienna for a time and, influenced by Austrian Christmas customs, invariably used candles to light their tree. My childhood Christmas trees had never had any lights at all Ė certainly not electric ones (too extravagant) and equally certainly not candles (too dangerous) so we made do with a collection of small decorations which were pretty enough and which gleamed in the firelight, but have left no lasting impression. The Flegg family Christmas tree was a different story altogether. A ceremony in itself, it made its formal appearance on Christmas Eve, decorated from top to toe with cherished little items each of which had a story attached, and lit by a host of carefully placed candles that flickered and glowed and illuminated the whole room. No other lights were necessary and none were used. The tree was a thing of surpassing beauty: the candles were re-lit on Christmas Day and again on New Yearís Eve, until eventually they burned down so low that in the interests of safety they had to be regretfully extinguished.
         

                                       

Aubrey and I continued this tradition until comparatively recently, when the difficulty of obtaining suitable candles put an end to it. The attendant fire-hazard was a restraining factor too, and I well remember Aubrey standing in the wings with a fire-extinguisher held at the ready. Putting the candles on the tree was an art form, as they had to be placed on each branch with infinite care so that there could be no possibility of the higher branches catching fire, and even then you could never leave the tree unattended, so for a family with small children and dogs it was perhaps unsustainable anyway. But my memory of candle-lit Christmas trees is a cherished one and I regret that todayís children donít get the chance to experience it.
          Every child knows that Christmas is all about presents, and one of my favourite characters in childrenís fiction, a small boy called Grimble (created by Clement Freud), is no exception. Grimble is well aware of the importance of presents. He has been carefully instructed about giving and receiving, and he knows that one is considered to be better than the other, but the trouble is that he can never remember which. Iíve always thought that Grimble had a point. Giving may indeed be blessed, but if you are the one at the receiving end then you are undoubtedly allowing the blessing to fall upon the giver? If so, are you not thereby acquiring some blessedness for yourself? You could argue this one both ways. Be that as it may, the memory of presents received is a sweet one and does not diminish with the passage of time. When I was quite small I was taken on a pre-Christmas visit to Santa in Pimís department store in Georgeís Street, a fine establishment in its time, and was asked the usual question Ė what would I like for Christmas? In the queue for the grotto I had spotted on a shelf, and fallen in love with, a toy elephant with a most endearing expression. He was pure white with a lovely blue saddle-cloth. Santa proved very understanding and assured me that he thought he could arrange it. Full of hope I went home and waited for Christmas, though I was periodically puzzled by the laughter of various kind grown-ups when they asked what I was hoping to receive for Christmas. What was so funny about wanting a white elephant? In due course Santa turned up trumps as indeed he always does and the elephant appeared on Christmas Day. I loved it dearly and it had pride of place in my bedroom for years.
          Carols are an important part of Christmas for all of us, and we all have our favourites. Mine is probably Good King Wenceslas, loved and remembered since childhood. Itís a little mini-opera, visual and dramatic, and I have always found it very moving, so I was delighted when I heard it during my first carol service in this church many years ago, with Maureen Ward as the Page and Dennis Aylmer as the King. Wonderful! It seems to me to be a very Unitarian carol, full of practical common sense and with human kindness at the heart of it. I know that in these politically correct times it is sometimes considered to be not quite the thing Ė paternalistic, male-dominated, addressing the symptoms of poverty rather than the cause etc etc Ė but for me itís up there with the best. Long may we continue to sing it!
          Once the Ghost of Christmas Past takes you by the hand and leads you down memory lane the journey could go on for ever. But that would be a bit indulgent - you canít live in the past, so perhaps itís time to call a halt. I find that a useful corrective to an excess of nostalgia is to remember that memories do not exist only in the past Ė childrenís experiences of Christmas Present are valuable too because they are building up their memory bank for the future. What will they recall fifty or sixty years from now when their Ghost of Christmas Past leads them back through time to our present day? Iíd love to know!

Jennifer Flegg
Dublin Unitarian Church


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