A best mate bought me a tea towel. It was red and white and tied with checked ribbon and tinsel. She’d made a card too, which was decorated with a square of material and gold stars. It may end up being my best present. On a day of driving rain and gridlocked roads, she came here to give it to me on a bike festooned with holly and Christmas lights. My mate is one of the busiest people I know. She has three sons, a demanding job, and an aged father. She also volunteers at a prison and always has a houseful of people who need feeding or cheering up. After visiting me she was cycling to Isleworth to buy Christmas pants (underpants for American readers). Don’t ask. It’s a long story. Just know that my mate is a legend.
I did my present shopping late on Saturday, the shortest day of the year, in Kingston in the rain with 3 or 4 other people who weren’t interested in the Strictly final. It was a good move. I kept glancing sideways and nodding my bobble hat at them with a conspiratorial “You too, huh?” to cement our unspoken dislike of sequins and tight trousers. We had this bond. We were strong, independent non-glitter-ballers content to live in our own skins. We did not need Anton du Beke. While the country was Strictly-bound, we were going out to buy Christmas so we could wrap it up and put it under the tree. (Of course, really, we’re just less organised than Strictly people.)
It was late in the day and quiet for a pre-Christmas Saturday. The atmosphere was festive. There were lights and the smell of gingerbread and by the churchyard, a leathery man selling chestnuts. There was also a Christmas market, music, stalls strung with tiny lights. People didn’t seem in the kind of manic hurry you’d have expected either. They strolled and looked in windows and sipped lattes in the rain, or shouted into mobiles.
“What size feet yer got?”
“Do figs give Gran the runs?”
“Who’s winning on Strictly?”
Apart from the Hari Krishna man, who surely could have sung carols, just this once, instead of that humming thing that was distinctly unChristmassy, the place was magical. It made me feel part of this vast throng of world-wide Christmas hunters battling through rain and wind, or drought if in Africa, to find the magic and buy it and get it home as soon as possible, so we can all parcel it up, put it under the tree, pour the bubbly and live the Christmas dream.
But here’s the thing – quite a few friends and neighbours are having a rubbish Christmas this year and won’t even be trying to buy the magic. There’s no point when you’re alone or someone you love is ill or your hope for the New Year is tired and old before you even get there. I remember such a Christmas – it’s like looking through the window at everyone else, all smart and dancey under the glitter ball while you’re outside in the rain with slippers on. It suddenly hits you – in a nose against the wall kind of way – that you actually don’t need atmosphere with a tree and turkey or even presents. These things are just a distraction from what really matters…
And God, who did the first Christmas, and knows its secrets, just gives us a baby. Which is, you know nice and all – babies melt the hardest hearts – but I’d well, prefer a miracle for my friends across the road, and for that person at church, and for my mate having chemo again. Which might well happen, I know. But in the meantime he invites us again to take a risk, on a baby…
When I get home, it’s windy and raining hard, there’s no one in and it’s so dark, I can’t even see to put the key in the lock – I am, ahem, a little visually challenged at the best of times. So I’m juggling my bags and stabbing the key at the door and getting wet hair and trying not to say bad words in my head, when a bloke walks past and lights a cigarette. A tiny pinprick of light but that’s all you need when it’s completely dark. It’s enough for me to jab wildly at the lock and feel the satisfying click of an opening door.
And in the house, it’s all panting and quiet, and dry and warm with good words like, “Thank goodness!” and “Home!” and “Put the kettle on” and the wind and the rain are all faint and distant and the bags make puddles on the floor. And when the light is on, through the lounge door, there are the wooden figures of the nativity scene – Mary with her chipped nose and the shepherd with his broken stick and the others, the same every year.
So I wearily pull the presents out of the bags and wipe them down and tick them off on lists, and I’m thinking of the tea towel and the Christmas pants and that God, who knows we have short memories, meant it to be simple – a promise, a baby, some shepherds and angels.
And every year I’m invited to choose – to hunt for magic or open the hands, to a baby. Chipped and broken, I’ll take a risk again on the baby; that tiny pinprick of light in the depths of winter.
But that’s all you need, when it’s completely dark…
And because of this, I can confidently wish all my kind and faithful blog readers, known and unknown, a Happy Christmas and a New Year filled with pinpricks of hope. And friends with tea towels.