Issue 4


By Dale Bilson


The time of plenty, of presents, of people and families. Of jollity, frivolity and merriment. Time off work. Time with loved ones. Food – mountains of the stuff. And alcohol. And toys and new iPads and new sofas and new kitchens. The Queen’s speech. Falling asleep in front of the television in the mid-afternoon, surrounded by presents. Friendship and petty family arguments. Love and companionship. Family. Warmth.

Well, according to Waitrose, anyway. Or M&S or Sainsbury's or any other British supermarket for that matter. And, to be honest, that was the Christmas of my childhood in Yorkshire. Every year the advertisers trot out an uncanny vision of my past, selling consumers the hope of that perfect Christmas which remains so strong in my memory. It is difficult for me, knowing it is just a memory, and for my family too. But not half as difficult as for those who will never experience the joy I will always be grateful for having known.

Last year, for the first time, my Christmas did not come straight from the pages of Country Living’s Christmas special. My grandparents, for so long the hub of our festive activities, were not with us. My Grandad, silver hair swept backwards and resplendent in his suit and tie, was missing from the breakfast table. So too his wife, my Nannie, the quiet, reassuring presence by his side. She was not there to tut at his anecdotes, and he was not there to deliver them, at length. The pain was palpable for me, my father and my brother. And for my mother, after more than 50 Christmases with her parents, it can scarcely be imagined. Christmas will never be the same again, for us.

But a year on, I am able to see how lucky I am to have known such Christmases. I am so very grateful. The excess and commercialism of Christmas continues unbroken and unabated. It weathers financial crises, social evils and even (or perhaps strengthened by?) religious apathy. But now I know that I am more fortunate than the children of billionaires or royalty. Because I have had the Christmas that money can’t buy.

Of course, it is a few years now since I woke up in the early hours, finding a pillowcase full of presents kindly delivered by Father Christmas while I slept. It is some time since I nobly prodded, shook and peered at each parcel instead of opening them before the rest of the house awoke. But it seems like only last year.

Eventually, as the sun rose, I would creep out of my room and down the corridor to my younger brother who, inevitably also awake, could be found amid a pile of wrapping paper. Looking up from whatever gift he was tearing open, he would be excited, but slightly concerned that someone had caught him in the act. Firmly camped on the moral high ground, I could then persuade him to wake everyone else up. They would groan - anyone would think they had been up late the night before, delivering presents. And my brother would be told that he should have waited to open his presents. But he wouldn’t care, for he was too excited and grateful to care. And neither would I, for now I too could start ripping them open.

Back in my room, watched by my envious sibling, I would sit on the floor and unpack the pillowcase, taking my time over every individual gift. Slowly and meticulously, I would remove the sellotape and refold the wrapping paper as I had seen adults do, frustrating my excited brother, and disregarding the fact that it would only ever be thrown away, despite Grandad’s protestation. Eventually the present would reveal itself, and I would yelp in happiness and (sometimes mock) surprise, before springing to my feet and sprinting in the direction of whoever was responsible for my delight. Turning right out of my room, I could bound the ten metres to my parents’ room, and leap onto the bed to administer their congratulatory cuddle. Turning left, the same distance away, I would find my grandparents who, with a little more care but no less enthusiasm, would be thanked to within an inch of their lives. And if the gift was from Father Christmas, I would simply sit in a state of grateful wonder.

Some time and many presents later, the adults would emerge from their beds. As we followed them downstairs, tinsel around the banister leading the way, before us would stretch a Christmas wonderland. The presents in our pillowcases would be but a small fraction of the gifts surrounding the base of the tree, stretching along the base of the patio doors and right up to the bottom of the stairs. High over the mantelpiece, six stockings, one for each of us, would bulge with perfume for Mum, chocolates for us boys, Turkish delight for Nannie and socks for Dad and Grandad. Father Christmas had been very kind indeed. And in return he had drunk his port, eaten most of his mince pie (I guess there wasn’t time to finish it), and taken the carrots for Rudolph and friends. The wonder and excitement in my heart was almost overwhelming. He had been! And we must have been good, for look at all these presents!

With everyone awake, even my brother had to wait before he could open his presents. We would sit down as a family for breakfast with Buck’s Fizz, which seemed significantly less tasty than standard orange juice. Soon we would be fighting over the last pain au chocolat while Mum made a start on the Turkey and Dad peeled vegetables. Nannie, a twinkle in her eye, would pass our chocolate oranges across to us, still at the table, in return for the first slice. Our fighting would cease, and moments later the chocolate would be gone, and our bellies would be full. Mum would never know. But Nannie's twinkle remained.

I can still see it now in my memory, her twinkle. Just as I can hear Grandad's voice as he recounts another of his stories. Or teaches us how the wheel of a train interacts with the rail. Or shows us just how to remove sellotape without tearing the paper. And so, too, I can still feel the wonder, excitement and warmth that I would feel on those Christmas mornings. Their warmth. It never leaves you.

The rest of the day would pass by in a haze. Of jollity, frivolity and merriment. Time with loved ones. Food – mountains of the stuff. And toys and toys and toys. The Queen’s speech. Adults falling asleep in front of the television in the mid-afternoon, surrounded by presents, while we gorged on chocolate and broke our new toys. Friendship and petty arguments. Love and companionship. Family. Warmth.

As we grew older, some things would be lost, but be replaced by others. Even as my faith in Father Christmas dwindled, I would still wake up with a pillowcase full of presents, and wonder how it got there. Or return from Christmas Eve drinks in the local pub with old friends to find a stocking filled with Yorkshire Ale had appeared on my bed at the stroke of midnight. Covert present opening at ungodly hours was replaced by brazen drinking at breakfast. But the constant warmth of open fire and family remained throughout.

There are many types of Christmas, but it is this warmth which is the vital factor. Whether your main present is an iPad, a watch, a second-hand book or just a simple Christmas kiss, warmth and family are the only ingredients you need to ensure a happy Christmas. That is easy for me to say, of course. For some, the familial closeness I have enjoyed is the most elusive ingredient of all. And for others, actual physical warmth and heating is a prohibitively expensive commodity.

That knowledge only makes me more grateful for the effort my family made in providing me with such a wonderful platform to allow me to enjoy Christmas and embrace it. I now understand that Father Christmas couldn’t possibly have delivered my pillowcase every year. Or at least not singlehandedly. He requires an awful lot of on the ground support, in order to make sure he can spread Christmas cheer to an entire planet. He needs adults to suppress their personal gripes, embrace their relatives and think of strangers, and show children that, for one day each year at least, love and family can overcome the petty issues of humankind.

Now, without my grandparents around to guide me, I know it is my responsibility to pass on this warmth. And this year, there are two reasons why it is particularly important.

My girlfriend, in so many ways the living embodiment of Christmas cheer, has never experienced a day like the one I remember so well. Every year she is resolutely cheerful, working tirelessly to find the best presents, wrapped in the nicest paper, and sealed with the most loving kisses for those around her. Her outfits are a festive inspiration to many, with her red and green, or sparkly tights, her beaming smile emerging from beneath an red elfin hat. But her family run a restaurant and so, inevitably, Christmas was just another working day. The closest she has come to my perfect day is enjoying the camararderie of a busy service team, working their socks off to delivery the turkey, wine and port required to make Christmas the day that others have dreamed of and paid for. She is a one person lesson in how to retain the love and warmth of Christmas, even in stressful times.

This year, for the first time, she is joining my family on Christmas Day. And I am determined to share with her the warmth that I know my grandparents would have shown her. We will eat, drink and be merry, and I will know that my Nannie and Grandad will be proud of us.

And then on Boxing Day, my Auntie, Uncle and cousins will arrive for their annual visit. I remember the four of them arriving each year, my excitement reaching levels not seen since the previous day. I would watch my oldest cousin with wonder as he would talk about his new motorbike or car, imagining that one day I would be like him. And his brother, too, such a quiet symbol of being older. We would show them all of our new toys, bombarding them with enthusiasm, thanking them sincerely for their presents, and receiving love and warmth in return.

In recent years the visit of four has become six, as they have both brought their new wives to the gathering, spreading the family warmth still further. My grandparents, for so long the hub of all our attentions, might not be with us in person any longer. But their warmth will remain in all of us, as we pass it between us, and to those who come to join us. My Grandad, silver hair swept backwards and resplendent in his suit and tie, is missing from the breakfast table. So too his wife, my Nannie, the quiet, reassuring presence by his side.

But their essence remains.

Just as a new essence is emerging. For my cousin’s wife is, as we speak, pregnant with their first child. My grandparents’ first great-grandchild, the first of the next generation. I don’t know if a fresh, new stocking will appear from nowhere at the stroke of midnight, but I do know I will do everything I can to help Father Christmas spread his Christmas cheer in any way I can to this new generation of our family. I will share my warmth with those around me, spare a thought for those less fortunate, less warm, and feel grateful.

And as I do so, in my heart I will say “Merry Christmas, Nannie. Merry Christmas, Grandad. Thank you.”


Dale Bilson's words have appeared in The Times, Huffington Post and Men's Health. Based near Birmingham, UK, his interests range from family and education to green tea and travel. He tweets at @dalebilson.

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