Christmases, and Charis
Early in the 1980s Iris Murdoch wrote to her good friend Brigid, ‘I’m sorry you don’t like the Christmas Festival. I love it. Doesn’t it symbolise something wonderful?’ Brigid was a vehement atheist, and an opponent of sentimentalism, to boot. Although fond of Iris, my mother disliked Christmas.
Yet my Christmases as a child without siblings were enchanted: Brigid was both pragmatic and unpuritanical. I believe my parents were rather taken with the seasonal appearance- in the print adverts as well as the London shops- of unusual toys and entertaining items that might delight me. Brigid herself had a penchant for the kind of furry toy animal I found appealing: there came my way variously a panda bear, a tall turquoise dog and one year a long, plush, striped soft-toy snake, which she insisted I name Amphisbaena. My father, Michael, had an eye for anything colourful, especially if jewelled; happily for us both, the 1960s were a decade of
unabashed enjoyment of novelty, pattern and sparkle.
My humanist parents never deceived me about who was responsible for the charged pillow case at the foot of my bed, and I needed no supernatural nonsense to experience all the thrill of anticipation. They ignored the religious devotion of Charis, my maternal grandmother, a resolute church-goer who sometimes invited me to accompany her to a service. Although Charis considered my spiritual side neglected, she indulged my worldliness, so together we ‘trimmed the tree’ – her small silver tinsel one- with glass baubles from decades past. And with newspaper spread over the kitchen table we planted bowls of indoor hyacinths in fly-away fibre in order that they bloomed on the Great Day. As Advent advanced, dark afternoons at Charis’ would include buttered crumpets and her recitation from memory of that dreadful poem, The Night Before Christmas. My contribution was to mime the action depicted in what I considered its vivid and exciting verses. This ended always in fits of giggles.
While John Brophy was alive, Brigid had felt duty bound to attend her parents’ Boxing Day pre-lunch drinks do which was an annual fixture at their flat in Coleherne Court. Although she knew many of the numerous neighbours who perhaps felt obliged to drop in for Cinzano and cheese footballs, Brigid found that type of socialising an agony. Later, as a widow, Charis took it upon herself to cook, with her customary gusto, a traditional Christmas lunch, for which our few assorted adult relatives would gather. I found the whole scenario fun and fascinating; it was rare for me to be in so large a party of grown-ups. However, there was always a submerged but palpable tension between Brigid and her mother: in spite of a bedrock of mutual affection they did not get on. ‘Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth was by comparison weak and conventional minded.’ Brigid wrote in her article, My Mother, published in The Sunday Telegraph in 1964. Never was Brigid’s antagonism to Charis’ midday festivity better illustrated than the year I gave Brigid, in the presence of the assembled diners, the gift of a set of colourful glass marbles. Taking a delicate fishbowl vase from the sideboard behind her, and imagining how pretty the effect would be, my mother tipped the marbles in. The glass bowl shattered instantly with explosive effect on the tablecloth. It was met by momentary silence and longer embarrassment.
Each year there would be the same small kerfuffle because my mother wanted from the main course only the vegetables and stuffing; furthermore, as soon as the pudding was eaten, she was keen to return home. Excusing herself with the plea that she had work to do, Brigid provoked in Charis the wounded exclamation, delivered theatrically, ‘But B darling, it’s Christmas!’.
As years passed, my parents forged some exemption from these get-togethers. My parents and I spent a joyous Christmas with a couple of my parents’ friends in a hotel in the Scilly Isles, where finding snow on the beach seemed incongruous and exotic. Brigid and Michael went on their own to Turkey another year, evading the seasonal to-do.
Once I’d left home, we would meet up for a vegetarian Christmas evening meal, organised and cooked by my father if we met at my parents’. Brigid would eat a bit, drink a certain amount and smoke copiously at table, passively appreciative. I’m glad now to recall how the cracker jokes genuinely amused her, as often their gaudy plastic contents did. And my mother continued to be a lavish and inspired gift-giver, even after her disablement by multiple sclerosis.