I’m one of those people who put their decorations up at the last minute, do their shopping a couple of days before Christmas and remove all traces by January 5th at the very latest. But, here we are in November and the decorations are already around us and the shops filled with Christmas baubles and festive chocolates.
I always find this rather depressing- Christmas falls at the end of December, yet by mid November, we are surrounded by evidence that Christmas is on its way and already some things are beginning to look a little stale. By January we will be suffering from Christmas overload and the shops will be removing any unsold Christmas items to replace them with Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs.
Seeing these early reflections of something which only really lasts a few days led me to think about Christmas’s I have spent in other countries. A few years ago, with Christmas ‘just around the corner’, I broke up from work a little earlier than usual and decided to go to Paris for a few days shopping.
One year I was working in Poland where Christmas at that time (it may still be the case) was also less of an excuse to spend too much money and overindulge ourselves and more about the religious aspect and family. I heard about a delightful custom from some students who told me that they put straw under the tablecloth for the family meal and always set an extra place at the table in case a stranger knocked on their door. I’m not sure how many people would actually welcome a random person joining them at the dinner table, but the sentiment behind it seems to encapsulate the true spirit of Christmas. One other very amusing sight is the carp sold in supermarkets- carp is a traditional Christmas food and during December you can see huge vats of live fish swimming around waiting to be purchased. Some of these fish seem to be begging to be bought as they ‘leap’ graciously up out of the water, do a little wiggle and then tumble back down. You can almost hear them screaming ’look at me, look at me!’ It could be they just have a sense of humour though, because if you happen to be standing close by, you can often get a bit of a soaking as they make their return to the water.
While Paris and Poland seemed to have it right for me, a more surreal experience had to be a trip to Portugal in October with warm balmy evenings still in evidence and Santa on his sleigh swinging gently between the trees along the promenade. I know many people have their Christmas’s in warmer temperatures than we do, but I think for many British folks, Christmas means cold crisp days, a smattering of snow if we are lucky and toasting ourselves by a roaring fire.
For myself, I think Ann Gray’s poem, ‘Carol’, sums up what Christmas should be about for all of us
look out for those who’re alone,
lay one extra place at the table,
throw open the doors of our home…’