Each year just before
Christmas, my father becomes ill - too ill to do any Christmas shopping,
get a Christmas tree or do any thing that might be associated with Christmas.
It has always been so, as far back as I can remember, but this year
he was particularly successful and even managed to get into hospital.
My mother now no longer walks against the prevailing wind and does not
usually get anything started until I travel up with my son to stay with
them. It has not always been that way with her. In the first year of
their marriage she insisted on buying a tree and decorating it herself.
After that she siphoned off small amounts of money from her housekeeping
allowance over the year and so was able to create her own traditions,
despite my father's disinterest. She knew that when it came to Christmas
day he would make a sudden recovery and the family would revel in all
that she provided.
I remember nights, in the dark, out on the golf course near our house.
There were areas of common covered in pine trees. This was the best
part of Christmas for me, stealing along quietly by my mother's side.
She carried a saw under her coat, and now and then flickered the torch
onto a tree to see if it was the right shape. I watched for anyone walking
their dog out late, while she did her sawing as unnoticeably as possible.
Then there was the task of carrying the tree home without anyone seeing
us. After a few years my father became worried enough about the consequences
to his standing in the community if we were caught, and managed to rouse
himself to go out and buy a tree himself - much to my disappointment.
My mother would never have wasted the money. "When I first came
to England I was struck, and still I am, by the tradition of saving
Christmas decorations. That they were saved and put away for the next
year - knowing that they were going to be taken out and used again."
My mother was talking to me as we put the little glass baubles onto
the Christmas tree together this year. "We just made paper chains
- there was no point in saving decorations - because we didn't know
if there would be another Christmas. But here they did know - it was
taken for granted."
Suddenly my mother starts to tell me about her own childhood Christmases
in Prague during the war. She never has before. "It was always
me who went out to find us our Christmas tree when I was a child. No
one else was bothered. I discovered that I could get them very cheaply
at the market and if I left it until the last minute they would even
give me one free. Once someone helped me carry it all the way back to
our flat. "Christmas day was mother's birthday and she didn't like
it. She explained to me and my brother from the very beginning that
there was no such thing as the original Christmas, it was all a load
of hypocrisy, but I refused to believe her.
"The tradition in Czechoslovakia was for children to leave their
boots outside the front door on Christmas Eve for St Nicholas to come
by and fill then with presents. "'There is no point in taking your
boots outside' my mother said when I was five, 'because St Nicholas
doesn't exist.' She didn't have anything to put in them even if she
had wanted to. Nevertheless I insisted on leaving them out that night
and the miracle was that the next morning they were filled. Who in that
time of want and rationing had filled them I never found out.
"The gloomiest Christmas we had was when I was seven. We had adopted
a hen. We got it in the summer when it was a little chick and now it
had grown up and liked to sit on top of the door of our second floor
flat and croon, or did it crow? Perhaps it was a cockeral after all
- that would explain why it had never produced any eggs. Mother liked
us to have pets, we kept two small tortoises in our bathroom as well.
"The concierge began to ask us for eggs. We knew that she was an
informer and that you were supposed to declare all livestock to the
Germans. The Gestapo liked to keep an eye on my mother. They had already
taken her for interrogation once. Where was my father - they wanted
to know. They didn't know that he was in England making broadcasts against
them on the radio. Lucky for us. We were not a priority with them, but
they made routine calls. They were suspicious of everyone. Mother taught
us always to be as quiet as possible when we heard the bell go, just
in case it was them.
Down in the flat below us lived a policeman who often complained to
my mother about the noise we made, but when the Gestapo called, he would
tell them we had gone away. "My mother decided that to avoid problems
we would eat our hen for Christmas. She found out how to kill it, draw
the innards and pluck it. She had a scientific mind and was able to
consult her anatomical textbooks. What she never could do was cook.
She boiled our hen for a few minutes in a pot of water and presented
it to us with some ersatz bread fried in codliver oil. "The three
of us sat around the table in a bereaved silence and managed only the
smallest of portions." After New Year my mother and my son dismantled
the Christmas tree together , and carefully put away all the decorations.
It was a chore she was glad to get out of the way. All the same they
are there packed safely in the garage, older than I am and saved for