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.