I hadn’t thought enough until now about how the message emblazoned on billions of cards wishing or commanding recipients to have a “Merry Christmas” might seem insensitive, or impossible.
Of course Bach’s Christmas Oratorio begins with that blazing burst of D-major trumpets and drums accompanying the chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket” (“Exult, rejoice!”), which used to give me a thrill as I snuggled into bed at my parents’ house every Christmas Eve. That mood of exuberant rejoicing comes naturally to children. But there are times when Christmas can’t be like that; when it is a time of mourning, and nostalgia and elegy.
Last Christmas was an especially poignant one at the family home where I was born and brought up and have celebrated more Christmases than I like to count. My father had just been given a grim diagnosis; we knew this was very likely the last Christmas we would all spend together.
Did that mean it was a sad Christmas? Well no; apparently not for him, and because of the intensity of his presence with us, not for the rest of us either, despite the tears that sometimes flowed. My father was not one for extravagant shows of emotion; when my partner Ching Ling went to see him for the first time after the diagnosis, and betrayed some feeling, he asked if there was anything wrong with her eyes.
My father, normally a man of few words, was more communicative last Christmas than I had ever remembered him, and in a different way. We talked and talked as a family, and he spoke especially about what was most important to him, what he believed in and didn’t believe in. We didn’t just talk, of course; we had a good but not transcendent bottle of Santenay over a relatively simple Christmas lunch of stuffed chicken, not the turkey of more expansive times that used to cause my mother grief: would it fit in the oven, would it be under/overcooked?
We went for walks, my mother and sister and I; my father didn’t feel up to it then. We had the ceremonial opening of presents. But one thing we did not do, at all, was watch the mind- and spirit-numbing offerings of Christmas television, the gameshows and the repeats of Bond movies – there was too much to talk about.
Faith or the lack of a conventional faith was at the heart of it. We had always known that my father was not an enthusiastic church-goer. He wanted to make it very clear to us that he was not a Christian believer. I think his frosty and hardly fun-loving grandmother had put him off organised religion for life. She belonged to a peculiar sect called the British Israelites, who claimed descent from a lost tribe of Israel, and looked forward with some relish to Armageddon, when the world with its sinful excesses, including wine and cinema, my father’s two great passions, would go up in flames and God would go back to the drawing-board.
But that didn’t mean that he didn’t believe in anything. A few days after Christmas, when with typical care and considerateness he had been going through his will, he commented, “the one thing we haven’t solved is who I am”. Humanist didn’t quite fit the bill: he considered himself more of a Wordsworthian nature-lover. And then there was his hatred of warmongering, born out of his dismay at seeing the firebombed German cities while serving in the Army of Occupation in 1945-46. This led to a lifelong passion for German wine and German culture, and strong condemnation of the Allied policy of area bombing.
That Christmas of discussions about core beliefs and values, though abnormal, was not a bad one or a sad one. In fact, my father described it as the best Christmas he had had for ages; “We’ve been able to talk and we haven’t wasted time going to stupid drinks parties.” He remembered earlier years when the Christmas wine order and delivery rush had gone on right up until Christmas Day, when in order to relax he’d gone to some seasonal bash and got slightly too merry.
Of course as a wine merchant and wine lover he was not against drinking, but more in favour of thoughtful than thoughtless imbibing. This coming Christmas, my first one without him, is bound to be sad and elegiac in some ways.
But we will also be remembering his tremendous and wide-ranging enjoyment of life and culture, his modesty and desire to be of service (he was still trying to deal with wine orders just a couple of days before he died). We will toast him with something a little bit special, the kind of bottle that, as he knew better than anybody, can bring glory to our mortal days.
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