Christmas in my wife’s family in Chicago really looks like Christmas. Everyone’s happy to see the snow. There are big Christmas trees with an abundance of presents underneath, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece, feasts, carols, candlelight church services, readings by family members of “The Night Before Christmas.” The traditions are, well, traditional.
When I moved to the States from England, this wasn’t the kind of Christmas I was used to. Many of the traditional traditions of Christmas, even the idea of Christmas, originated in England. But in our family, things had drifted a bit. I grew up in the 1960s in the working-class town of Aldershot, in the county of Hampshire, about an hour’s train ride outside of London. Certainly there was snow, but my parents looked upon its arrival with deep dismay. They loved the Johnny Mathis “Merry Christmas” album, with Johnny in his ski outfit on the cover, but that was as close to snow as they wanted to get.
So we kept outings to a minimum, except, of course, for the long drives in search of holly to use in our Christmas decorations. My parents were no skinflints, but they would rather have listened to carol singers all night than pay good money for holly. It was the Hunt for Red December. Holly branches with plump clusters of berries were the prize, and my parents would go anywhere to get them, day or night, whether in the wild woods or someone else’s garden.
When Christmas day came, we opened our presents. A few lesser ones, including mine to my parents, would be waiting around our two-foot-tall tinsel tree, which in a good year would be garnished with red-berried holly. As for my main presents, Father Christmas would deliver them to the foot of my bed inside a pillow case. There were touches of transatlantic influence about our Christmas. I have a photo of myself at age 5 in full cowboy gear, but the American-style gift mountain wasn’t part of the picture.
For the menfolk, including me when I was old enough, the highlight of the day was a visit to the pub. My granddad, whose heroes were Winston Churchill and Oliver Hardy, was the life and soul. He and my dad had plenty of favorite jokes, including a local lady named Mary who had married a Mr. Christmas and become Mary Christmas. After a session of good laughs along these lines, they would return to our apartment for a turkey lunch cooked by my mum and my nan (grandmother). Every year the men were late and every year the women were upset. Christmas lunch was the one occasion when they drank wine, always a sweet Spanish sauterne. They didn’t like it, but for some reason it had become a tradition and they toughed it out.
Television played a big part. One or both of the TV stations would run epic movies. My parents enjoyed the sunny weather in “Lawrence of Arabia,” and lately have been complaining about Christmas showings of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a recent import that’s far too wintery for their liking. In the afternoon the Queen would address the nation in The Queen’s Speech, usually reporting on her visits to parts of the former British Empire, now the Commonwealth. Any of her subjects who hadn’t already dozed off under their paper party hats waited for her to say “My husband and I,” the phrase that launched a thousand Queen impressions.
My best memory from childhood Christmases is that feeling of goodness filling the world known to everyone who has been moved by “A Christmas Carol.” As Dickens tells us, it sits perfectly well with comedy and eccentricity. For many of us who were young in the 1960s, the Dickensian Christmas feeling became all the stronger when mixed up with the blissful ideals of love and peace that were part of youth culture year-round. It was when Holly Power met Flower Power, and I miss them both.
Malcolm Warner, U.K. born and educated, joined Laguna Art Museum as executive director in January. Previously he was deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum of Ft. Worth, Tex.