GROWING UP IN England meant Christmas was always the biggest deal in terms of holidays, and it always held a particular magic for me as a child, based as it was, around many of my favorite things: no school; lots of chocolate; my all-time favorite food, turkey; getting presents; looking through the double edition of the Radio Times to survey the three TV channels to plan which films and TV shows I would watch; and the idea of snow.
I say the idea of snow because though frost was common in Northern England, snow was sparse, rarely sticking around for more than a day or two. The vision of a ‘White Christmas’ —falling snow on Christmas Day— however, remained a powerfully romantic idea not to be dashed by it never actually coming to pass. There would always be next year to look forward to, and it was ‘the looking forward to’ — that sheer, tingling childhood anticipation of December, and the countdown to Christmas Day— that made it so special. The followers of baby Jesus, who had after all hijacked Winterfest from earlier pagans, had nothing to do with it.
I learned in later life that the concept and subsequent popular perception of a White Christmas was the result of a invention by Irving Berlin, an assimilating Jew, who penned the tune in 1941. This has done nothing to dent my association of December with snow.
My first actual consummation of this romantic dream was sweetly European, on the road in various Decembers of the 1990’s with Chumbawamba in Germany, Poland and Scandanavia. I even got my childhood wish of a White Christmas in England when visiting for the holidays in 2009, when the whole North Atlantic was gripped in the counter-intuitive freezing extremes of a warming planet. Here in Twisp, WA, living at 2000 feet in the foothills on the eastern side of the North Cascades, as I write on 12.12.12, there is a base of three inches of snow on the ground outside my window, and according to the NOAA forecast, some chance of snow every day for the next seven days at least. The appeal of the winter here, and a place where four distinct seasons still largely exists, is in no small part a reason why Twisp feels like home to me.
At some point as a child I had the Dickens scared out of me by the 1951 black and white film of A Christmas Carol, starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge. Forever after that, Christmas for me always had to have a ghost story. Having never been in a theatrical production in my life, in 2010 I was approached here in Twisp, on account of my English accent, to consider taking a role in the local community production of the stage-play, and was easily convinced to take the role of scariest ghost of all, the Spirit of Christmas Future. He does not speak, of course, but I put every ounce of my Englishness into that out-stretched pointing finger of his.
I do remember reading Dracula as a teen during the run up to Christmas, and the BBC would always screen some dramatized Christmas ghost story in December. This year I have just started reading The Soul of Lilith by Marie Corelli from 1892, and I have a part assembled/part in my head musical Christmas ghost story, which pops back into my consciousness at this time of year.
My Nana Helen—born in 1900, a hundred years before my own children—told the story of how she and her siblings would each get an apple and an orange for Christmas and saw it as the biggest treat ever. At the time this seemed like the worst kind of horror story to me, and my baby boomer brothers. Of course as children, we had no idea that the mantra of unrestricted economic growth was a cancer in disguise, which remains on course to devour its host cells—us, and all whom we hold dear. As a sentient adult in the twenty-first century I fear that our wastefulness and the real horror of global warming will wipe out almost everything of our romantically charmed lives. That, in short, if my future grandchildren get an apple and an orange for Christmas, they will be amongst the very lucky ones.
My last and most romantic association with an English Christmas is one of which I have no idea of the origin. I think in part I may have made some of this up. It is the notion of the Christmas kiss, and is not to be confused with a drunken snog at a works doo or kissing the person who happens to be standing next to you at New Year.
The real Christmas kiss is as elusive as an English White Christmas. It is as if the gateway between dimensions has opened a tiny sliver. It is the one time in the year, where for several consecutive exhilarating moments, it is okay to kiss an unrequited love, or an elusive love, on the lips for more than a half second. It contains no more promise than that dreams are real. It is the human condition distilled to a frisson at an atomic level. In the geography of the heart a Christmas kiss is a chorus of angels before angels were invented. In evolutionary terms it is a sign that love predates religion in our culture, and that religion’s attempts to confine and tame love will always fail. It is the true winter spirit, born of our deep hunter-gatherer history, salty, luscious and real.