Until recent years I didn’t know that Christmas preparations could come as early as August. In the supermarkets as soon as they took down the beachwear, sandals and suncream, they put Christmas decorations on one shelf. Then an aisle, then two. By October, boxed chocolates, biscuits and toiletries were everywhere. Carols playing through the loudspeakers, as though people needed reminding and Christmas spirit and cheer could be gift wrapped, bought and sold.
You’ve heard my whinge. Now, would you like a different story?
This was the animated story shown on Channel 4 at Christmas time, twenty four years ago. It was then repeated three years in a row. But not since, if I remembered correctly.
I remembered it well. It was my first Christmas in England. I didn’t think we had turkey, nor much celebration. Those came later, after we started a family. But there was this story that warmed my heart. In those days I made notes of whatever pulled at my heartstrings and saved them for later.
Many Christmases later, it was still there in the corner of my heart somewhere, so I looked for the notes. Like many others I made in my other life, I didn’t think they would see the light of day again. Well, here they are. If you could spare a minute or two, put the kettle on I’d love to share the story with you.
An October day of vanished gold somewhere in a Swiss village, autumn leaves are falling. A seven year old girl is looking forward to going into the city. She loves watching men stumbling and colliding with each other, in their hurried steps.
In the waiting room the headache returns. She cannot hear what the doctor is saying to her mother. She holds her head with both hands. That’s better. This is already the seventh doctor they have consulted in three years. She looks out of the window. Late autumn, the days get dark in the early afternoon.
“Just make these last two months as nice for her as possible. She has till mid December.”
Her father asks her a funny question:
Imagine a fairy is here to grant you one wish. What will that be?
She thinks for a long time. She smiles. She shakes her head. That’s not possible. Not even if a fairy is willing to try.
What is it, her parents urge.
To make Christmas come sooner. To celebrate Christmas.
It is October 15th, still two more months to go.
The end of October comes.
When is Christmas, she asks.
The fog is growing thicker and settling in her lungs.
The trees go bare.
Why does Christmas have to be on December 25th?
Why not earlier?
Why not on December 14th?
Could it be on December 10th?
This year it will be early, her father promises. Just like the way Easter comes at a different time each year. Sometimes in March, sometimes in April.
This year Christmas will be on December 10th.
Will everybody know?
Will the bells chime at midnight?
Will the trees be decorated and lit up?
Will carols singers go door to door?
Her father goes door to door.
First to the Schoolmaster, to make Christmas happen.
The Parson says he understands.
The Baker says no.
Christmas does not just happen. Christmas has to be prepared. People draw up lists, for grocery shopping; presents to give; cards to send. People have to get Christmas into their head. On Christmas Eve for last minute shopping people need to have worries about missing out someone, have to collapse under the tree, weary.
No, from the business point of view, Christmas cannot be improvised.
It may be too much to ask for Christmas for a single child.
Her father loses heart.
The fields are white with snow.
On the morning of November 29th, Christmas decoration goes up in the Baker’s shop window. People shake their heads. They know this can happen in November in big cities. But no, not in the village. The Baker tells everyone about the girl’s wish. People listen. They understand and they go home to tell their families. The Butcher follows suit; the booksellers; the radio shop; the chemist; the Co-op…
On November 30th, the Parson talks to the Mayor. There is a lot to talk about. The Church’s regulations, the law, the special services…. They invite the villagers to a meeting, to decide When Christmas will be.
The girl stays in bed.
She has trouble breathing.
Many believe it’s feasible.
But someone disagrees. Christmas has to be held onto. It cannot be moved.
All the men speak at once, raise their voices, stop listening.
Changing the mind is a sign of weakness.
No women have spoken, until then —
Why not just move Christmas Eve to December 10th and celebrate Christmas as usual?
They look at each other. Heads nod. Consensus murmur.
Preparations are in full swing. Trumpeters start practising; school children are being told; even Santa arrives early in the grotto.
December 10th dawns.
It is a warm and windy day.
Warm like spring.
As the day grows dark, trumpets begin to blow.
The trees light up.
Bells ring out.
Some people are not ready, presents still unwrapped; turkeys in the freezer.
But the desire for Christmas is there in the air.
What is it that makes Christmas?
What we make of it.
When is Christmas?
Whenever we want.