Our house was on a steep cobbled street, one of hundreds built on the side of the valley above a smokey industrial town in northern England. The terrace houses were built of Yorkshire stone capped with steeply pitched slate roofs. Each house had four brown clay chimney pots. In winter, once ice began to coat the inside of the windows, my parents built roaring coal fires in the living room grate and the bedroom grates and these sent smoke billowing from the chimneys to mix with that of our neighbors’ and the smog from the factories and mills. When snow came, the street was Christmas card perfect and in the early dark of mid-winter flames from the fire, flickering on the glass of the living room window, sent a welcoming glow out into the street. To a tiny child dashing home from school, it was a bubble of warmth, security and comfort.
As kids our Christmas began when mum brought the tree and trimmings down from the attic where they lived for the rest of the year. The trimmings, old and dusty,were always the first to go up. They were made of different colors of crepe paper and opened like a giant concertina. Eight in all, they were fixed to the plaster, and the wooden base of the light in the middle of the ceiling by drawing pins and they crisscrossed the room. When I was old enough and able to climb the stepladder to hang the trimmings, I could count the Christmases they had seen duty by the number of pin holes in the plaster.
Fresh from hibernation in the attic, the tree looked like a pipe cleaner. It had wire branches that bent into place and each year more of the greenery would fall off. It sat on a wooden base that was wrapped in shiny red paper printed with holly and ivy.
With the tree in place, the ancient glass baubles were lifted carefully out of their box and stripped of tissue paper. Each branch had its own bauble, even those at the back of the tree that no one could see.
The branches were then strung with lights and silver tinsel garland and dotted with cotton wool snow.
On top of the tree mum placed a glorious star.
Only when the lights had been turned on was I allowed to place my own ornament at the bottom of the tree—a small plaster polar bear covered with moth-eaten white baize. The bear had a black nose and tiny amber eyes and I loved it with all my heart. Every morning, when I came down stairs, I looked for my polar bear because I knew he moved around at night. And once, when the only light in the room came from the guttering flames in the hearth, I saw him move in the shadows—first his head and then a paw.
It was the magic of Christmas and I believed.
But like snow, my childhood melted away and stockings hung on the chimney breast that once held mittens and teddy bears,selection boxes and games were replaced with toys wrapped in Christmas paper, and then clothes, and then plain white envelopes containing small amounts of money…
One December the tree and trimmings remained in the attic, no fire burned in the grate, and my world became cold and lonely.
And that’s how I lost the magic of Christmas and I never thought I would get it back. But I have, and that magic is with me as I write. I have come to realize that the magic is in the spirit of Christmas, a spirit that knows no bounds and is not hobbled by religion or faith.
The magic is all around us; it’s in the stars on a clear night, the warmth of a hug, the kiss of someone you love, the touch of a friend, the ocean’s swell. It’s a cat curled on your lap, a dog running along a beach … a polar bear made of plaster.
And to think I almost lost it.