Just like Bing Crosby, I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. As a kid growing up in Yorkshire in the 1960s, my chums and I were treated to some wonderful snowfalls; drifts so high you could jump in them and cover yourself completely. Packed snow in the fields and icy pathways were perfect for sledging or sliding. In winter we always had a rope over our shoulders and a sledge trailing behind. When not racing down a hill we would have monumental snowball fights or roll up the snow into giant wheels which we would then climb on. We always had a snowman in the back yard and the Christmas tree in the living room was real and smelt of the forest. In the evenings we would wait for the glorious sunset when the orange light spread across the snow and made us all quiet and reflective – just happy to be young and alive in a winter wonderland. Now it’s gone forever, a lost world where Christmas was Christmassy, authentic, real. Or was it?
Now I live in the south of Brazil where I’m not expecting a white Christmas. The last time snow fell in Porto Alegre, Pelé’s grandfather was wearing nappies. And it was July. So when I say I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, I mean just that: it’s a dream – a confection of the imagination. In fact, there never was a perfect, picture-postcard Christmas. Those images of sleigh bells, roasting chestnuts, log fires and mistletoe kisses are nothing but a fantasy. And my Yorkshire memories are idealised, purple-tinted. I don’t believe there ever were any “good old days”. That said, I do think that in the past Christmas was celebrated in ways we would hardly recognise today.
Bradford’s very own “famous author”, J.B. Priestley, describes Christmas before the First World War in his autobiography, Margin Released. The two main images he develops are abundance of food and drink at home: hocks of ham in the pantry, poultry fresh from the butcher, fruits and nuts, strong wines and liquors, beer and cigars. The other is hospitality. It was open-house, certainly amongst the middle-classes; all through the festive season friends and neighbours would drop in to have a drink and something to eat. And then there were games. Not just cards and board games, but charades and all kinds of dressing-up. And lots of piano-playing and singing. Priestley remembers parties almost every night in late December.
Of course, some of this still sounds familiar to us, though the sense of community has vanished in our modern world. That and the fact that Christmas means wasting money on consumer goods from department stores. So, do I wish we could roll back the clocks to a bygone age? Yes, if we could edit out the nasties. A hundred years ago, certainly in England, most people were puritanical, narrow-minded and prejudiced. They believed God was watching their sins. There was also real poverty, lack of hygiene, appalling diseases and ignorance.
But I’m still a sucker for a Victorian Christmas card. No cars, no roads, no televisions, computers or muzak. Just people, horses, dogs and a chicken or two in the back yard. A quiet, peaceful, simple life. And a hearty welcome at every coaching inn! OK, that’s probably going a bit too far. Anyway, here’s the Christmas card I sent out this year.
So all that’s left to say is: have a joyful, simple Christmas with peace and tranquility. And if that’s just not possible, close your eyes and dream.