Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Nearly time to rejoice in the return of light

Nature dictates that this is the most miserable time of year, I reflected as I walked the dog in almost pitch dark at close to eight o’clock yesterday morning.

The list of things on which I agree wholeheartedly with Alex Salmond is far from long, but he can certainly count on my support in opposing the prolongation of this gloom for a further hour by shunting Britain into the same time zone as Berlin.

... or not, as the case may be

On the plus side, in just two days’ time the Earth will begin to swing those of us in the northern hemisphere back towards longer days. It is only natural that we should celebrate.

I have taken no great pleasure in Christmas for the half century or so since some smart alec at Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School pointed out that Santa Claus did not exist. But now, with a two-year-old in the house, memories of the innocent magic of my own childhood come trickling back.

Helped by the Hann hoarding instincts which mean that we are still hanging precisely the same decorations on our Christmas tree, though even I have drawn the line at plugging in the 60-year-old fairy lights.

Somewhat knackered angel. Probably Woolworths, circa 1955
Distinctly sinister Santa. Allegedly an heirloom from my grandparents, he looks much more likely to dispense a good hiding than presents.

It is heartwarming to see young Charlie’s face light up each morning as he plucks another treat from his advent calendar (an invention that my own parents kept very quiet). I am hoping for a similar reaction to his main present, which has already been the cause of much sweating and cursing while its intended recipient has been peacefully asleep in his cot.

DIY Advent calendar, with pockets full of assorted treats. Nothing like this in my day.

Naively ordered online in the expectation that we would receive something resembling the attractive ride-on toy pictured on the website, I was surprised to be confronted by a kit of parts that presented the most exacting construction challenge I have faced since I started buying my furniture from antique shops instead of MFI (RIP).

It now looks exactly like the picture on the box but, rather worryingly, there are two screws left over. After a morning spent at A&E on Sunday, following a minor disagreement between my son’s eye and a supermarket trolley, I shall keep my fingers firmly crossed that they are not critical to the product’s safety.

What else has changed about Christmas since the days when I could look forward to receiving a Dinky toy and a couple of tangerines in one of my grandfather’s old shooting socks? Selection boxes of chocolate bars and drums of fags seem to have dropped off the list of acceptable gifts, and little boys are no longer encouraged to sit on the knee of a drink-sozzled tramp with a cotton wool beard to whisper their innermost desires into his NHS hearing aid. Who says there is no such thing as progress?

Santa as I remember him from the store grottoes of my boyhood

The other big difference is simply one of temperature. Ours was quite a posh house by 1950s standards, with a car in the garage and a telephone in the hall. This meant that we heated two rooms instead of just one, with a coal fire in the lounge as well as the kitchen range.

Bedrooms were freezing cold, with sleep only to be achieved in winter by wearing a pullover and woolly socks as well as pyjamas, and spreading an overcoat over the bed. Now my son has a baby alarm that nags us if his nursery is not within the “Goldilocks zone” of optimum warmth.

In short he is more comfortable, better fed and infinitely more generously supplied with toys than I ever was, just as my father and considerably older brother looked on with amazement at the material richness of my childhood compared with theirs.

Has this massive improvement in “living standards” over the last 50 years made its beneficiaries any happier than I was as a child? Of course not. Which is why I suspect that the end of the fat years of economic growth in the West need not fill any of us with too much regret. But this is hardly the time to dwell on that. Rejoice in the return of the light and have a very merry Christmas.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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