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That time of year

by Alan Townend

A long, long time ago every evening for a whole week I used to put on a pair of large feathered wings, deliver a few lines from the pulpit in a church and pretend I was the Archangel Gabriel. I was taking part in a nativity play about the birth of Jesus Christ. I don't think I could possibly have entertained the idea of ever doing this in my own country and even now I look back in amazement that I ever did it in the first place.

The play took place in an Anglican church in the centre of Zurich, Switzerland where I was earning a crust as an English teacher. The audience were mainly Swiss and I only hoped that they understood what I was on about. You may know that one of the often quoted lines is when the Angel says to Mary: "Hail thou that art highly favoured..." (Greetings to you who are highly favoured...) My one fear was that I would forget my lines and even worse that I would inadvertently describe Mary as "highly flavoured". Fortunately everything went off successfully and the local newspaper gave a favourable review but sadly no mention was made of the Archangel. I believe there was a somewhat sniffy disapproval that this particular messenger of God wore brown socks when he walked down the aisle of the church. It was not considered angelic! But I do assure you it was a very cold floor.

So it's that time of year again – Christmas and obviously it has different meanings to different people, depending on where you live and what your religion happens to be. In my country it has long been described as too commercial and there is a fierce competition to see when the first sign of the season appears in the shops. In some stores it even makes its initial appearance in August even before children go back to school for the start of the new academic year. From then on it's non-stop. There is usually a harking back to the 19th century when we think of the image of a typical Christmas scene where the robin sits on the branch of a tree, everybody looks extremely happy and healthy, a coach and horses can be seen making their way through the snow and invariably there is a picture of a large Christmas pudding together with a roast turkey – the one bird in the kingdom which never looks forward to Christmas. This is what you see on the traditional Christmas card. Here I turn to my encylopaedia alias Google: The first Christmas card was created and sent in 1843. A man named John Calcott Horsely printed the first Christmas card for Sir Henry Cole, the friend who had given him the idea. The card depicted a typical English family enjoying the holiday, and people performing acts of charity. An important part of Victorian Christmas spirit. A thousand copies of the card were printed and sold for one shilling.

To many people though, it's the story written by Charles Dickens, the Victorian novelist, called A Christmas Carol that they think of at this time of year. This tells of a horrible miser who refuses to let his clerk go home early to be with his family at Christmas time, to put extra coal on the fire in his office although it's freezing and who mumbles the word "Humbug" (my dictionary defines this as deceptive or false talk but what it suggests is that he thinks that Christmas is a waste of time and not real) The name of this man is Scrooge and the word is now in the language meaning someone who is very mean. Scrooge dreams three times on that Christmas Eve about Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future and becomes aware of how he has devoted his whole life to money and ignored human relationships. When he finally awakes on Christmas morning, he is so delighted to be alive that he buys the biggest turkey he can find and sends it to the poor clerk who works for him and is immediately transformed into the jolliest chap in town. It is a delightful story and most importantly it has a happy ending. Very often with Dickens you see the hard side of life as he depicts the terrible conditions poor people lived in during the Victorian period, but in this story he exudes goodwill. Essentially Christmas used to convey a sense of magic and it was children who would accept that magic and believe it as my younger son once did when many years ago we happened to come face to face with a Father Christmas strolling through our local shopping centre on Christmas Eve, who said to him: "See you tonight."

Nowadays at least on my little island we all have to be "PC" (politically correct). We should tell the truth to children and not let them indulge in a bit of fantasy. Even the Christmas cards mustn't be too religious, they say. Why, in my newspaper this morning I've come across the ultimate in political correctness. It shows a Christmas card depicting six Brussels sprouts displayed as a triangle. Would you believe it? I think the newly converted Mr Scrooge might well be tempted to say: "humbug."

But then this is the time of peace and goodwill and with that in mind if you believe in Christmas and celebrate it, I hope you have a Happy time. And a Happy New Year.

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