It was 1963. A blizzard blew across the grass outside the married quarters where we lived in RAF St Athan. My parents seemed to have just one record for their Gramophone, Harry Belafonte’s O Island in the Sun, but they had long ago left an idyllic sojourn in Cyprus, where I was born.
That year, I received a large doll in a mauve pram for Christmas. My brother had my baby sister scribble in biro on its face and my mother was very upset, scrubbing at it and saying how the cheeks no longer had any colour. Not long after this, the doll was packed into a box and sent to Germany, but the posting was cancelled and it was returned. Winter, 1963 was as colourless as that doll's cheeks.
We moved to Singapore: Christmas in the sun, under the palm trees, beside the swimming pool! Santa would fly over the camp, sitting in monkey straps, dangling his boots from the helicopter, blaring carols out of a loud speaker. My dad drank Tiger beer and a cornucopia of presents, made in Japan or Hong Kong would be opened from underneath the artificial tree. I had a small flat harp which sat on my knee. The notes were on a sheet beneath the strings, and I played O Susannah Don’t You Cry for Me. There was a Gang Show on camp, like something out of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, but the dancers didn’t need to be in drag, as the POWs had been during their long incarceration in the jungle in World War Two. There was Indian and Tamil dancing, and a Scottish piped band, on a stage, in a field, in the sultry darkness.
Of course, I recall the atmosphere of Christmas in the UK when I was growing up. Englebert Humperdinck in Robinson Crusoe at The London Palladium, and the music albums as a teenager, the pubs and the drunkenness; the Last Orders wearily announced by the Landlord before we all went home for our dinner on Christmas Day; but it is my Christmases with my children in the various places we lived that are most memorable.
In El Salvador, the cordite would creep in under the door from the crazy fireworks, factories sometimes exploding in the distance. The festivities and tracer bullets would go on, even as the sirens approached and the fires were being quenched. We decorated a tree as gaudily as possible, with an electric flashing star on top. The children spontaneously sang beside it, wearing our old tee-shirts for night dresses, "O Chwithmas Twee, O Chwithmas Twee, How Lovely Are Your Bwancheth!” Their little voices, a brief moment, the best gift, in my memory.
We lunched on the veranda beside the orchids and deep pink bougainvillea, with a group of strays who were also far from home. The gas bottle ran out at a crucial moment in the cooking of the large chicken, known as a “Chompi Pollo”, and there was a madcap dash around town in a pick-up, to locate another. It was a steady 27 degrees centigrade, altitude 1,000 meters, dry, and mosquito free, the perfect climate. We had three week’s holiday from our teaching jobs, time to lie blissfully in the hammock and re-read long tomes, The Count of Monte Cristo, How Green Was My Valley.
“El Salvador, we like it hot and dangerous!” was the neighbours’ reaction to our news that we were moving to “cold and peaceful” Switzerland where we spent the next eight Christmases. Far from a home we only vaguely remembered, we always made a point of staying put at Christmas wherever we were. If relatives wanted to share it, they must visit.
Somehow there was always a dusting of snow in Berne by Christmas morning. Our tiny tree, which cost a king’s ransom and was rather scorned by our neighbour, grew year by year in its pot to become almost respectable. The Christmas Market was a modest event, and the giant snowman outside Loeb department store became a little jaded in our eyes for its repeated use. What I remember most though is a simple event in the forest with real candles flickering on a pine, and Shmutzli with Schwarz Pete beside him, reading from a book of the deeds of the children which deserved presents, or not. Maybe the rather intimidating experience was not as much fun for the children as the adults.
Christmas reached its apotheosis in Germany where we spent five years. From the end of November until Christmas Eve, a veritable fairground came to town, filling every available thoroughfare branching out from the main centre of Stuttgart. Nowadays you can see these Christmas stalls in Britain, but then, they were destinations for a short break holiday, if you could stand the cold. Street after street of sheds decorated with reindeer and elves on their snowy roofs, and candles and gew gaws galore, such as you would not know where to start in choosing... fruit kebabs dunked in melted chocolate, puddings and gluewein and trinkets. By the time those years arrived, I had become a kind of Santa, happily shopping and carrying home presents, wrapping them and preparing the tree for my husband to do the usual untangling and testing of the lights. It was the last few cosy years before the eldest left home.
And so to Spain, where the deep greens and rich reds of German decorations, the lush pine needles of the wreathes, were replaced by brash turquoise lights and orange wigs on market stalls in a square in the centre of Madrid. There was a party atmosphere, but the serious Christmas of Germany, the one King Albert brought to Britain, was somehow skewed. There was snow on the distant hills, the air on the plains fresh and clear. The cold was surprising and the frosty sunny mornings lit the remaining weeds of summer past to tiny tips of light.
In the end, our meandering took us back to northern Europe and six years in the Netherlands. Here there were no Christmas stalls and still some people wouldn't visit Germany. Instead there would be a campaign on the main square on a muddy, icy Christmas Eve, to promote condoms to Africa, its main slogan, “Give a Fuck.” This audacious use of the English language is everywhere in the Netherlands. They don’t have Christmas as such, not in my English way, anyway. In fact, comparatively few people do, I discovered, as I wandered the world from Peru to Taiwan. Schwartz Piet comes up from Spain in a galleon in November and stays until December 5th, when he leaves presents in children's shoes and returns home. So, it is all over by the 6th, once the Piets have left. Nowadays they are having to change their appearance, but the tradition is dying hard, and no wonder. It would be hard to be told that Santa was ageist or beardest or something that took away your best-loved childhood rituals, though one would roll with it, no doubt.
Each Christmas night I would read aloud A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. In my heart, I always return to our village there, though I have spent very few Christmases in our house. On Christmas Day, everyone in the village dons their new coats and walks up the beach to greet one another. This is unusual in a place that is dark and empty most of the time. There are mince pies and carols in the ancient church on the hill, but nowhere to park, so the walk up there is dark and treacherous, requiring a large torch and stout shoes, warm coat, or rain gear. Still, when I think of all my Christmases in various places, I would give anything to re-visit that moment in El Salvador when my children sang high and spontaneously, “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, how lovely are your branches!”
Heather Gatley was born in Cyprus to British parents and has lived and worked all over the world as an English teacher. She has had poetry, prose and photographs published in Proximity Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ariel Chart, Centered on Taipei, the Carmarthen Journal and Memoirist. Her four chapbooks of poems, entitled “Indigo Sky”, “Tombs of Gold”“Last Boat to Brienzersee” and The Cliffs of Qingshui are available on Amazon.