It was when I first saw Uncle John Harman’s black trousers protruding under Father Christmas’s scarlet robe that my world changed. Up till then I had taken it for granted that grown-ups did not tell lies. Those stories of Father Christmas coming down the chimney, of Father Christmas reading my carefully written yet impassioned pleas for presents, left outside for reindeer to collect, of Father Christmas coming down the chimney bringing the presents – all this must be true because the grown-ups said so.
Now there was incontrovertible evidence that Father Christmas was really Uncle John, my mother’s bachelor brother, a doctor, who spent a lot of time with us. There was worse to come. When I tackled my mother on the subject, I found I was still secretly hoping that there was some explanation which would leave me still believing profoundly and happily in the great red-cloaked man. But she admitted all, adding the clinching command: “Don’t tell the younger ones.” As the eldest of eight, perhaps I did get some satisfaction out of my privileged knowledge. But it did not compare to the romance I had lost.
Fortunately, after my family’s conversion to Catholicism, Midnight Mass came to provide, in a very different way, a glamorous spiritual version of that Christmas romance. Staying up so late when one was young, the darkness of the journey, the light of the church, the carols being belted out, the thrilling journey home. And what did we find when we got home? Why, Father Christmas had taken advantage of our absence to fill the stockings we had lain hopefully at the bottom of our beds. Murmuring a thank-you to Baby Jesus, I eagerly ripped open what he had surely transported by reindeer, thus happily combining new belief with previous pagan conviction.
With time, I tried to recreate the same North Oxford Christmas for my own children, while in the Highlands of Scotland. The same Christmas tree – except the Scottish one was far, far larger. The weather was wilder, the journey to Midnight Mass through the glen more thrilling – and the house was even colder than wartime North Oxford as the boiler regularly broke down on Christmas Eve, leaving us without hot water and heating. This was a stroke of malevolent fate which I certainly did not ascribe to the divine Baby Jesus, otherwise engaged in his manger, but possibly to Father Christmas whose reindeer disliked the mountainous journey. Or there may have been envy of approaching Hogmanay, in which Father Christmas played no part.
Other people’s Christmas customs can take one by surprise: you grow up with a lofty assumption that “ours is the only way to do it”. Certainly, the only Christmas I spent apart from my family before marriage was so unusual as to linger in the memory. In 1950, the prime minister of Italy, Alcide de Gasperi, and his wife decided to invite a suitable young girl to spend Christmas with them in Rome, to talk English to their daughters; she had of course to be a Catholic, as they were, but in addition she had to be a socialist or of socialist stock, to match De Gasperi’s own politics. My father was in the Labour government at the time, and I fancy I was about the only girl who fitted the bill. So here I was, the guest of the wonderful prime minister – kind, decent and charismatic; a rare combination – his profoundly devout wife and their two daughters.
Thus I found myself in a flat next door to St Peter’s, which might as well have been inside it, I went to so many Masses. Where was the tree? The Christmas pudding? The turkey? Instead the family ate pasta consistently, which looked far more delicious than any turkey. Unfortunately, because I was English, I was given special meat meals instead which were perfectly disgusting. I began to pine for the real thing, pudding and all.
For true appreciation of Christmas food, I had to wait for my many Christmases with Harold from the mid-Seventies onwards. Because Harold, being Jewish, had not celebrated Christmas as a child, he adored it all: the pudding with its tiny silver charms especially. But he liked the whole ritual: the Christmas lunch, at which speeches were made (certain members of the family came to be limited by law as regards time). He himself established his own ritual by regularly singing “Down by the Salley Gardens”, his favourite song as a young actor in Ireland. Although he declined to enact Father Christmas, he did come regularly with me to Midnight Mass at Farm Street.
Antonia Fraser is an historian. Her latest book The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton: A 19th Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women is out now
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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