Christmas in Newtownards

For us growing up, Christmas day was one of those days where you could set your watch by what happened.

We’d wake up early, open the stocking that was left for us by Santa, which would have a comic or magazine, toothbrushes, and chocolate. This kept us going until we’d had our breakfast and got dressed. We weren’t allowed to just go straight in and open our presents; the door to the front room would be shut and we’d only be allowed in once Dad had set up the video camera in order to film us coming in. You can see personalities from the footage- my older brother being super-excited, me hanging back being fully aware of the camera and being wary of giving the “right” reaction, and my younger brother being innocent and having to be helped with his presents. And Mum trying not too get stressed about too much wrapping paper lying around.

Church was at 10AM, and for the only time in the year, we were allowed to bring our toys along. By that time, I had already broken Optimus Prime, but I didn’t mention it as I didn’t want to ruin the day (plus, the break was not that big a deal). Of course, being the minister’s family, we had to arrive early (sometimes up to half an hour, which is a long time to kick your heels), meaning less time for playing with our toys, so we’d leave maybe around 9:20 and make our way through the near deserted streets. In order to preserve the harmony, I would make a point of having the usual Sunday morning argument with my younger brother about who had to sit in the uncomfortable middle car seat.

I remember one year seeing a young man wearing glasses walking on his own and smoking a cigarette near the Manse Road, by the Strangford Arms Hotel. I didn’t say anything, but I remember being sad for him that it was Christmas morning and he was on his own and didn’t seem to have any presents. Of course, he might have been going somewhere to be with someone, but I didn’t know anything. You’d see that no planes would be taking off from the aerodrome by the Comber Road before you turned right into the West Winds, where many of the residents had had their decorations up since Halloween.

We’d get in and sit and wait for the service to start, while some of the well-meaning grown-ups would come and ask us about our presents (other kids didn’t tend to arrive until close to the time and would leave as soon as the service ended). They would say “wow” at the toys we had, but I didn’t really know what to say back, I think because I had some belief that showing enthusiasm in anything was annoying to the other person or that they’d laugh at me for it (as was basically my experience in high school). The conversations never lasted very long.

The service would start with O Come All Ye Faithful and would be accompanied throughout by an array of clicks, bleeps, and robot noises, or girls combing their dolls’ hair. Dad would do a bit where he’d go round the congregation and ask people about the presents they got, from which he usually spared us. The kids would enthusiastically talk about their lego, or a baby doll; he’d usually ask one of the elders too, and it would usually be a jumper to which I as a child would usually roll me eyes and say to myself “how boring!”.

After a short sermon and a bit of Joy to the World, some more waiting around while my parents talked to people and then we were off home, to enjoy our toys. Freedom at last!

It would be around 12 and Mum would set about making the lunch, a choice of prawn cocktail or melon, followed by an amazing turkey dinner with all the trimmings (just two kinds of potatoes, if any of you are fans of casual racism, though I generally avoided Brussels Sprouts). Pudding was after the Queen, no arguments. One year, my Dad told me off for having a mince pie after a mint (“I told you that the mint is always the last thing!”). At some point, my older brother would put Star Wars on (Return of the Jedi was the only one we had at the time, so the “I am your father” revelation lost its impact on me). In my adolescence, I wanted to watch the Top of the Pops Christmas special, but never did, as it clashed with lunch. I’d like to tell you it was about seeing great music, but alas it was more about fancying Baby Spice.

Granny and Granda would usually make an appearance after the Queen, when they’d come from Comber and  drop off some more presents and the grown-ups would have coffee. Uncle Bobby, my granny’s brother, came with them and would challenge me on the small snooker table we had at the time (I am not sure I ever beat him). We wouldn’t see my other Granny and Granda as they’d usually be on holiday. Somehow, presents from my mum’s parents would be fun toys, while presents from my dad’s parents would be clothes (not so much fun).

By now, it would be dusk and the setting sun would cause Scrabo Hill to shine. My grandparents would set off for one of the other uncles’ or aunts’ houses in Kircubbin or Donaghadee. Then, much TV would be watched with a small tea of wheaten bread and smoked salmon before we all went to bed. The final ritual was for us to take our presents up to our room, while Dad filmed us leaving the front room. I did not enjoy this (basically, for me this was a normal thing, and the extra attention I got for doing this fairly normal thing really didn’t sit well with me), to the point where one year, I took the presents up secretly while my grandparents were around. Then I announced I was going to bed while I was already halfway out the door. Mum begged to allow Dad to film me, but, stubbornly, I said no. My brother came to my room later and accused me of ruining Christmas. It was probably fair comment, but that was the end of that particular tradition as it was never mentioned again.

Time marched on, and the traditions changed. We left Newtownards in 1999. We grew up. We wanted mp3 players (and bizarrely, one year, a pager) instead of Transformers. Grandparents died. Cousins moved to Australia. I left Northern Ireland. A few years later, my older brother did too*, and then he got married. This year, we’ll all be together, but this time, with a girl (my sister-in-law).

I can see now that my parents worked hard to create great memories for us at Christmas time. When you’re a child, you do not see this, the discussions about going to buy the presents (only for the credit to be given to some phony in the north pole), the hours it spent to wrap them, to chop the vegetables, baste the turkey, visit relatives, and bear with months-long excitement building up to it, not to mention grumpy adolescents who hate being on camera. When you realise all this, it makes you both exceptionally thankful, and makes you realise what a spirit-filled life looks like. Patience, kindness, and gentleness abounding, because of God coming down to live with us, to relate to us, and to bring us closer to him.

Jesus is God’s son, whom he loves; he is worth listening to.


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And there we Wept

On 10th November 2002, I went to bed after playing some pool with friends in Pollock Halls. Early the next morning, my stomach cramped up and I spent most of the rest of the time that I should have been sleeping vomiting into a bucket. The next morning, I cried for such a long time that a couple of the girls in the halls next to me came to my door to ask me if I was ok and to ask if I needed anything. I never forgot that kindness. It was the first time I had been properly sick since leaving home and I missed having my mum around to look after me.

I didn’t think that it would be fifteen years until I cried again, but that’s exactly what happened. I do not know why I have been unable to cry for so long, since during that time I’ve had heartbreak, deaths, illness, disappointment, and all the other whips and scorns of time, as well as weddings, glorious sporting results, getting a PhD, and running half marathons, the delight of a man’s heart.

I walked away from someone who wasn’t a Christian who wanted to marry me. I unlocked secrets of the universe and depression stopped me from telling many people about it.  I heard (and didn’t believe) gossip that would destroy marriages and ruin careers. I watched as a man collapsed and died. I have had my internal monologue talk me out of asking good Christian women out and saw as another man asked them instead. I have felt feelings that I may never fully understand. And I could not cry.

This morning, during the last songs at church, I experienced a wave of grief and sadness I just couldn’t hold back. One of my friends came to comfort me and understood what was causing it, that I had been devastated by some recent events. The release was hard to describe, but I felt a degree of relief that it had finally happened, the events themselves notwithstanding.

Here is Psalm 30.

A Psalm of David. A song at the dedication of the temple.

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up
    and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
    and you have healed me.
Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
    and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
    and his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
    but joy comes with the morning.

As for me, I said in my prosperity,
    “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord,
    you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
    I was dismayed.

To you, O Lord, I cry,
    and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,
    if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
    Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me!
    Lord, be my helper!”

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
    you have loosed my sackcloth
    and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
    Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

David wrote this Psalm for the temple’s dedication, but the temple would not be completed until several years after his death. He trusted God that it would be built, so he turned to a situation in his past where he felt far from God, and recalled that He turned the situation around and turned his wailing to dancing. By appealing to God’s past help, he knew he could trust God to see his plans through, and it’s this that is giving me great comfort today.



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Real Life

Some of you have asked me why I put up an old blog post about death last night. It was a reaction to an incident that happened at the Parkrun at the weekend.

A few yards ahead of me, I spotted a man in his 50s or 60s, falling down. He just fell flat on his face with no hint of trying to arrest his fall. Some blood fell out of his mouth and nose, and several runners immediately stopped and went to his aid. I figured that I wouldn’t be any extra help, so kept running, and when I drew level with him he was motionless, not even blinking. When I’d got a few yards ahead, I turned round and could see bleeding on his head too. I feared the worst. When we got round, on the way back, we were told to walk, and that the run had been abandoned. You could see an ambulance and a few police cars out on the promenade, and from a distance you could see someone attempting CPR. We left before we could see the ambulance taking him away.

His name was Ron.

A few hours later, it was posted on the Edinburgh Parkrun Facebook page that Ron had passed away later that day.

I had a stag do that day and church the next, so I was unable to process what had happened until last night. I can’t say that I’d ever seen someone’s last moments before. Coupled with a less-than-ideal interaction with someone last night which had me disappointed, as well as news that one of good friend’s dad is dying, it’s left me somewhat down. I might not be myself for a while. Please pray for Ron’s family and for my friend’s dad.

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What is legal tender?

Aged 18, I arrived in Edinburgh bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with boundless optimism and a wallet full of Northern Irish notes. That first weekend, I popped into a shop to buy a Fuse bar (bring it back, Cadbury’s, you know it makes sense!). The cashier looked over the First Trust Bank fiver and asked me if I had anything else. Confused, I grumbled something about legal tender and pointed out that it was Sterling, but he said he couldn’t accept it and asked for something else, so I had to go to the hole in the wall next door to get an acceptable note for that sweet, sweet chocolately hit.

I now realise that it’s kind of ironic an NI note not being accepted in Scotland when there is a stereotype of English people not accepting Scottish notes, with the cry of ” BUT IT’S LEGAL TENDER!” ringing out across the land. But is it? I thought it was worth finding out what legal tender actually was, and I was more than a bit surprised.

If both parties agree, you can pay for anything any way you like, be it with coins, notes, postage stamps, goats, or a pint.

However, if there is a debt to be settled and both parties differ on how it is to be paid, this is where legal tender comes in.

If I owe someone money, and I offer to pay it in legal tender, the other party must accept my payment. If they do not, then essentially they lose any right to my money. If I offer to pay someone in anything other than legal tender and don’t offer the possibility of legal tender, then the other party may sue me for non-payment. To illustrate, here are two scenarios:

  1. I have taken a taxi home from the pub and I want to pay the cabbie when I arrive
  2. I want to buy a Fuse bar in a WH Smith and pay at the till

Scenario 1 requires payment for a service already rendered and therefore a debt exists. If I offer to pay the cabbie in legal tender, they must accept, but they can refuse any non-legal tender method.

Scenario 2 means no debt exists, as I have not yet purchased the chocolate bar. Yelling “legal tender!” at the cashier or self-service machine has no effect, because there is no debt*. The cashier has effectively refused me service at all because my proposed payment isn’t to their liking (even if it’s legal tender), which is not quite the same as refusing payment. Paying £100 for a Freddo would probably be kind of annoying.

So what is legal tender in the UK?

Throughout the UK, all the standard coins are legal tender, although for smaller denominations there is a limit to how many you can spend at once (so don’t try and pay off your mortgage with 1p coins). Certain commemorative coins are legal tender too.

On the other hand, postage stamps are not legal tender anywhere in the UK, as the royal mint blog confirms. However, you are free to try and use them as they do have an obvious monetary value, but shouldn’t be disappointed if you are refused.

As for notes, in England and Wales, Bank of England notes are legal tender, meaning the cabbie won’t refuse your note in these places (as if they would). They are not legal tender in Scotland and NI. Unfortunately, Scottish notes are not legal tender in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland, and NI notes likewise are not legal tender in the rest of the UK.

But here is the surprise.

Scottish banknotes are not even legal tender in Scotland.

Yes. The same is true of Northern Irish banknotes in Northern Ireland. I don’t know why this is, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact notes in these countries are issued by private banks and not by the central Bank of England.

A Scottish cabbie can refuse my Scottish banknote and insist I pay them in coins, or drive me across the border and demand Bank of England notes.

Generally, though, people are mostly sensible, my incident with the First Trust fiver was a one-off, and I have never encountered any problems spending Scottish money in England (or in NI for that matter). But sadly, it isn’t actually legal tender.

I’ve got most of this information from the Bank of England website. Any errors, please let me know!


*There does remain the possibility that I could eat the chocolate bar in the shop before I pay for it, but by that point you’re just being a jerk


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