I was born in London, England, in 1920. It was a very good year, and yes, in time I heard the bells on Christmas Day. Not the ones, of course, extolled by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), but those alluded to by British poet Sir John Betjeman (1904-1984), known for his nostalgia for the near-past, exact sense of place, and precise rendering of social nuance, as in his poem "Christmas":
And girls in slacks remember Dad
And oafish louts remember Mum
And sleepless children's hearts are glad
And Christmas bells say "Come!"
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel*
*on Park Lane, directly across from Hyde Park
So, I found myself the son of a musical comedy actress and skater, and of an adventurous man who was a stockbroker, classical pianist, and avid reader of the thrillers of Edgar Wallace and Sapper, the creator of Bulldog Drummond (books that I lapped up as soon as I could read). And then there was Joan, my six-year older sister, who was so solicitous of her baby brother Bobby. Mother narrowly survived the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and was left with a legacy of fever, chills, hacking cough and bronchitis that returned through the rest of her life, so often at Christmas.
Around Christmas, Joan and I would make lengths of colored paper-chains, and the family began decorating the house. I particularly remember the two huge, brilliantly polished brass shells that Father had brought back from war-torn France and Belgium. He had taken the whole family over for a tour of the trenches. Mother always filled the shells with rich red-berried holly, and it was her prerogative to hang the mistletoe sprigs above one of the doors to kiss beneath, a custom dating back to the early 17th century. I soon grew into the kissingest little chap around.
When I moved to Ashland in 1985, I was surprised to find mistletoe growing in abundance on the oak trees at Emigrant Lake amid acres of acorns. A parasite, it grows in clumps on the upper branches. Its white berries, however, are poisonous. This year I found a store in Medford selling packaged sprigs at $1.99 a pop.
Christmas Eve was an exciting time for me, with the impending visit from Santa, riding across the sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. I would hang a large stocking on the bedpost, along with a capacious pillowcase, crawl into bed and finally drift off to sleep. I never did see Santa, but I often wondered how Mother knew to put out the pillowcase. Did she actually have communication with him?
We were not wanting for music in our family. In the morning, Mother practiced her singing scales and songs at the grand piano in the drawing room; in the evening Father took over with Chopin and Mozart; and I had a bash at every opportunity. In retrospect, I like to think my strum and thump were the sincerest form of flattery. I noticed that he began to include the scores of popular musicals, such as "Rose Marie," "The Desert Song," and especially "The Merry Widow," her favorite. We had also an HMV (His Master's Voice) wind-up console gramophone. It kept me wound up! Young as I was, I played "Softly Awakes my Heart," the lovely aria from "Samson and Delilah," over and over. I looked forward to the carolers who came by at night, hoping I would hear "Silent Night," surely the most beautiful of Christmas songs.
Thanks to Guglielmo Marconi, radio would soon become a factor in our lives, heralding a new tradition in 1932, when King George V delivered a radio address on Christmas Day.
In a speech written by Rudyard Kipling, he said, "I speak now from my home and from my heart, to you all"¦"
His daughter, Queen Elizabeth, continued the tradition first on radio and later on television. In Britain, most people watch or listen to it while tucking into Christmas dinner (usually 3 p.m.). Our family waited until she had spoken.
The King's College Cambridge Choir provides the most popular nationwide carol service, "Carols from King's," as it is called. It is pre-recorded in early or mid-December and aired on Christmas Eve in the U.K. on BBC2 and BBC4. Selections from previous programs are being presented in the U.S. on the Classic Arts Showcase (available on Dish Network).
One special Christmas treat was our trip to the cinema to see a silent picture, though the talkies would soon be all the rage. Four stick in my memory: "Ben-Hur," with the thrilling chariot race, "The Black Pirate" (filmed in early Technicolor process), "The Thief of Baghdad," and "Wings," that won best movie for 1927 and was praised for its flying combat sequences, among the best in Hollywood history.
I began these recollections by quoting from Betjeman's Christmas poem, and here are his final lines:
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained glass-window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
I must have gone through the mama-dada stage as a kid, but always after addressed my parents as Mother and Father, not from any discipline but from an innate acceptance that bespoke a strong affection. I have long outlived them but remember them still, especially at this season.