As the Festive Season gets fully underway, Wales Arts Review asked some of our writers (coincidentally they turned out to be some of our most curmudgeonly ones) to give us an insight into something that symbolises Christmas to them. The responses were varied, sometimes exciting, sometimes hilarious; and even a few that act as good warnings to avoid certain people’s houses during the latter stages of December. In Part Two we see some classic choices, and some surprises.
I was only five-years-old when The Box of Delights (the BBC’s adaptation of John Masefield’s classic children’s novel), was first broadcast in late November, 1984 but I can still remember the impression, deep as footprints in thick, crunching snow, that its first episode made on me. My mother and I had been Christmas shopping in Enfield, the largest nearby town short of going into London, and had both been equally determined to get back in time for the opening episode. So whenever I think of that first episode, the marvellously titled ‘When the Wolves Were Running’, I always think of the bus stop at the end of our road. Probably because it was frosty and dark and even – am I imagining it? – lightly snowing. Much like the scene towards the end of the first episode, when our hero, Kay Harker, ventures out into the freezing late night snow and inexplicably finds a pony waiting to help him escape the wolves (or the ‘men-wolves’ as Masefield winningly has it) that chase them to King Arthur’s Camp at Butler’s Down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself because arguably the best part of the entire series of The Box of Delights has already happened within its first ten minutes (which is not to say that it’s down hill from there – quite the opposite – it’s just that it really is quite an opening ten minutes.)
Firstly, the… no, those opening credits. A star falls through the starlit sky and splits in two, forming the eyes of a terrifying wolf. Next: a blizzard of snow and the two eyes have widened into the huge painted pupils of a garish Mr Punch, who is then slowly blown away in the snowstorm, before other significant characters from the programme appear against a slowly shifting, darkly ominous sky. All the while the music, a sinister fairytale version of ‘The First Noel’ is playing – all pagan harp-plucks before the arrival of more traditional woodwind and oboe – coupled with the visual image of the magical box of delights itself – suddenly making the whole thing feel less alarming and really just incredibly Christmassy.
The action begins with Kay Harker changing platforms on the way home from school for the Christmas holidays. A man with a huge mop of white hair, and a rust-gold coloured dog that is wearing – quite magnificently – an Elizabethan ruff, alert him to the fact that his ticket is actually lying at his feet. ‘Only I do date from pagan times, you know,’ the man, who goes by the name of Cole Hawlings (played with delightful extravagance by Patrick Troughton), says gnomically, as they part for their respective carriages. Kay is joined in his carriage by two clergyman who seem to know all about him and who then force him to ‘play cards with strangers on a train’ (there are visual references to Hitchcock through the series, not least in some superb – and frankly alarming! – dream sequences), so that he has to give ‘half a crown for the Christmas poor box.’ Just as Kay is handing over the money the train goes under a bridge and we see that the clergyman standing over him is in actual fact a man-wolf in the dark. (There are great, unsettling references to wolves throughout the series, not least when, seeing a pack of Alsatians running together, Kay’s guardian Caroline-Louisa, turns to him and says, ‘I never like them, they remind me too much of wolves’ – cue sinister music!)
I’ve overrun the word count here already but I cannot write this piece without mentioning Robert Stevens’ portrayal of the fantastically evil Abner Brown. Frequently dressed in a dog collar and an emerald green smoking jacket he brings all of the required Shakespearean qualities to Masefield’s inventive, dancing prose, while at the same time being far more menacing than anyone should probably be in a children’s TV drama (which is, to say, just menacing enough.) The Box of Delights is that rare thing, a children’s drama that doesn’t take children for fools. It is also as Christmassy as presents under the tree and hot alcoholic beverages in constantly replenished glasses. As Christmassy, in fact, as snow crunched underfoot, on a long, cold tramp to midnight mass.
Christmas has an odd association with ghost stories. It’s a delicious Gothic relationship that has something to do with the delightful childish willingness to be frightened for pleasure. And it also has something to do with Victorian costumes and large dominating staircases weaving through the all-following eyes of ancestral portraits. It is about things that go bump in the night, sure; but also a connection to a time when Christmas was in its prime – a time when it always snowed and there were toy soldiers and skating on ponds. Dickens did it to us, of course, bringing spirits to Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom chamber. A Christmas Carol has had a cultural effect on the Christmas-celebrating world like no other single creation. It has created Christmas, arguably, even more than it has reflected it. But it is not Dickens’ short story (or the many excellent movie adaptations that have followed it) that is my choice.
I remember vividly the first time I saw what was to become one of the most important movies to me. I was thirteen, and I was watching television in bed, deep into the night of Christmas Eve, and not a creature was stirring, when the BBC decided to air Robert Wise’s 1963 masterpiece The Haunting. It has embedded into me so deeply, that chief among the reactions I have to its mention is an aching longing for it to be Christmas Eve 1992 again, and for me to be tucked in, duvet up to my eyes, experiencing the film for the first time. The Haunting is a masterclass in old school cinematic fright, what the studios used to call ‘terror’ (a term Bush and Blair have since re-coined with no less theatrical intent). Wise focuses almost entirely on the faces of the characters in peril as they spend the night in an old haunted house, undergrad researchers helping with the experiment of the handsome and charismatic Dr Markway (Richard Johnson). Nelson Gidding’s screenplay adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel crackles with exactly the correct amount of ‘knowing’. Early on, Julie Harris’ Eleanor asks Dr Markway what he expects to find in the notorious Hill House. Markway portentously removes his pipe from between his teeth and replies, ‘Perhaps just some dark shadows and loose floorboards, Eleanor. But maybe… just maybe… the gateway to another world.’ It is one my favourite moments of campness in the history of cinema.
But the film is deadly serious too, and still stands as one of the most terrifying movie experiences of my life. The reveal when the light comes on and Eleanor realises that she could not have been holding on to Theodora’s ‘freezing cold’ hand in the dark, as Theodora was asleep on the other side of the room, has my spine tingling as I sit and write this sentence. The ground-breaking camera work that reflects the eccentric architecture of the mansion (‘not a right angle in the place’) helped change the way horror films were considered by critics who viewed them as teen trash (Psycho was still yet to be truly embraced as a serious piece of work by most). The scene where the encroaching thunder of whatever malevolence it is that infects the mansion, complete with the throbbing oak door, is still a sequence for which I can find no equal in all horror. Julie Harris is magnificent as the vulnerable and cloying Eleanor, Claire Bloome is unrelentingly sexy as Theo, and Russ Tamblyn is perfect as sceptical frat boy Luke; but the star of the movie is Hill House itself, and Wise’s treatment of the relationship between camera and set. From that moment Christmas to me has been not sleigh bells and snowmen, but witches teetering on rickety iron spiral staircases and the heart-stopping crashes of unseen demons. And the odd thing is, I have no doubt my Christmases have been greatly improved by the advent of that dark fork in the road for a thirteen year old boy.
I am so very glad that I heard the poet U A Fanthorpe reading her work live. Her readings with her partner Rosie Bailey were illuminating and heart-warming, and although U A is now gone to the Great Mystery, I will always hear her voice when I read her poems. For many years U A and Rosie made their own Christmas cards, for which U A wrote a poem. They type-set the cards themselves. On a radio programme which the BBC made about this a couple of years ago, after U A’s death, Rosie talked about the limitations of their printing set-up (initially something along the lines of a John Bull printing set!) and said that sometimes U A ‘would write an ambitious poem with too many “E’s” and have to write another.’
These days Christmas cards seem to me less and less relevant, more of a burden than a pleasure, but how wonderful it would have been to have received one of those cards from U A and Rosie. When I was a little girl I thought that people were nicer at Christmas, and U A’s poems are a part of that better world. I’m not talking about nostalgia, but more a capturing of the essence of things. U A never preaches; she is quirky, and that is another reason that I love her poems. She writes, for example, from the point of view of the donkey in the manger, who says:
I could see the baby and I
Would be going places together.
U A Fanthorpe and Rosie Bailey sent out a Christmas card with a new poem every year for nearly 30 years. The poems are available in a published collection from Enitharmon. Now that I think about it, I might just go and buy a few copies to give as presents this Christmas. Next best thing to getting one of those cards.
J. S. Bach’s Cantata Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt celebrates the nativity yet its universality rises above it. Written whilst Bach was kantor at the Thomaskirche, Leipzig, for a service on 27 December 1725, its magic lies in its first section: a long lullaby-like aria for soprano, strings and flute, ineffably peaceful and timeless in mood. Composed to a text by the now forgotten poet Georg Christian Lehms, it might represent the Virgin singing to her newborn baby, or even, as John Eliot Gardiner has surmised, ‘solace offered to the fragile believer through Jesus’s arrival on earth.’ It is undoubtedly a nativity piece, but, for me, will always be associated with a performance at a funeral service many years ago on a warm July afternoon, its powerful serenity associated with both departure and arrival.
For me Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Bowie’s ‘Laughing Gnome’. Ever since I discovered a tape cassette of Bowie’s early songs hidden away at the back of an unmanned record store in Caerphilly market in November 1997, I have not been able to pass a Christmas without playing it. Although it is considered one of Bowie’s biggest failures, ‘The Laughing Gnome’ is one of those songs that is so bad, it is good. Though it is not a Christmas record per se, it has a kind of jingly jangly sound, that when coupled with Bowie’s sped up gnome voice creates a special kind of Christmassy magic feeling in my stomach. When I play it, I am reminded of the time I had just left home, age 16, having decided to move in with my then girlfriend. Because we were young and penniless the highlight of that year’s Christmas feast turned out to be a super-sized Quality Street bauble full of Strawberry creams. On Christmas morning we cracked it in half and gorged upon the cheap choccy delights. We made rings for each other from wrappers and sparkly pipe cleaners. It is was a time of innocence. I was young enough to know mankind was an abomination but not yet mature enough to know all the reasons why. Unfortunately that period in my life did not last long enough, and I of course was forced to become a man. The sweet sixteen relationship crashed and burned as they almost always do, and I later became marooned on the Garth Mountain, which is where I discovered poetry and developed my leaning towards existentialism. Before life drove a knife in, and twisted it into my alcohol soaked sponge of a liver, Bowie’s ‘Laughing Gnome’ provided the soundtrack to my age of innocence. Every time I play it I am reminded of the fact that it’s not only a good thing to take the piss out of yourself, but if you do it publicly, and make a record of it, you might just end up bringing a small slice of joy to other people’s lives. For me ‘The Laughing Gnome’ is proof positive that it can be Christmas any day you like, and that you don’t need any trimmings, turkey, or money in fact to make Christmas Christmassy. It does not matter what day it is. It does not matter if it’s the middle of summer. As soon as I hear that ‘ha ha ha, hee hee hee’, I am a boy again, in a world where giant purple baubles provide feasts, and strawberry cream wrappers marry people together.
You’ve probably heard ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by The Waitresses on at least a hundred different occasions; in a shopping centre, at a party, at the gym, yet possibly have never known what it was called or whom it was by. It can often be found on the type of Christmas compilation that tends to be located at the till of a 24-hour garage, next to the discounted chocolate and air fresheners – it’s sugary sweet and it smells good. To the uninitiated, it’s the sound of catchy over-produced early-80s pop music masquerading as white girl rap. It’s a spindly tale of missed connections and fleeting liaisons, a gossipy approximation of a weekend full of drunken taxi-cab kissing. Yet for me, this song represents so much more than that. ‘Christmas Wrapping’ is the sound of a pre-Giuliani New York, a New York City that still welcomed the poor and disaffected and accommodated them in cramped downtown apartments subject to rent control where they wrote great books and formed killer bands; the sound of art and pop music trampling over the forces of commerce. It’s the sound of a group of suburban girls coming home on the subway from Paradise Garage at 3am having danced all night to Blue Monday on MDMA. It’s the sound of a cheap bottle of sparkling wine being passed around from pink day-glo fingerless glove to green day-glo fingerless glove whilst crumpled up cigarettes are exchanged. It’s the sound of a sisterhood so warm and welcoming that it simply doesn’t matter that the boiler is broken, the windows have frozen up, and there’s no money to pay a handyman even if one was available. It’s the sound of Madonna in her imperial phase – ‘Holiday’, ‘Borderline’, ‘Lucky Star’ – before she turned into whatever that awful thing was that she turned into. Culturally, economically, and spiritually it’s the complete antithesis of Carrie Bradshaw and her dreadful self-obsessed Sex and the City collaborators. And it’s a time, a place, and a spirit that’s gone forever. Merry Christmas.
When I was a child I was obsessed with Muppets. Nothing odd in that, although I was 13 or 14 at the time and most of my classmates were venturing into music, make-up and snogging. Not me. I wished with all my heart that I’d go to bed one night, wake up in Sesame Street and that it’d be real. I knew it wasn’t real of course. That was the problem. I was beginning to realise just how unreal, made-up, constructed most things in life are from the idea of a ‘good’ job to the claims of TV adverts, from fashion to the authority of institutions and traditions. I was loosing my childhood sense of the magical and I mourned it. As everything started to look ordinary and tarnished my adolescent Muppet obsession was a comfort blanket that helped me deal with the disenchantment.
Christmas was a casualty. I didn’t like the dressing up, the enforced jollity, the consumer zombieism.
Then a few years ago I hit 40 and I cheered up. Just because most things are culturally constructed in a way that benefits the powerful at the expense of the powerless doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Christmas. Some people would argue that this realisation lies at the heart of the gospel nativity accounts. Plus, twinkly lights are lovely; presents are fun; and who in their right mind would miss an opportunity to dress up their Staffordshire Bull Terrier in reindeer antlers? So I decided to construct some Christmas traditions of my own. Some are unusual, reflecting the deconstuctionist part of my personality (e.g. this year I bought a turkey a Christmas dinner and intend to do so henceforth). Others are more normal. My favourite new traditional tradition is to watch A Muppet Christmas Carol during Christmas week whilst toasting my late Dad Eddie with a giant glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream (the film and the lady-drink two of his favourite things).
The Muppet Christmas Carol makes me feel very happy. Of course it does. It’s got Michael Caine as Scrooge, giving his best performance since Hannah and Her Sisters and my favourite Muppets (Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchet, Fozzie Bear as Scrooge’s employer Mr. Fozziwig and Janice providing some sweet bass at the Wozziwig Christmas ball). All are as real as ever. It’s amazing how soon the brain stops differentiating between humans and puppets. The film is refreshingly faithful to Dickens’ original – well, apart from the singing cabbages, and the introduction of a new character; Robert, the brother of Jacob Marley (d’ya get it?). The blend of satire and sentimentality is just about right (so long as you leave the room when the song ‘One more sleep ’til Christmas’ comes on). The fact that it’s directed by Brian Henson after his father Jim’s untimely death makes it all the more special to me. In fact, this year, I’m going to raise a glass to Eddie and Jim. God bless us, everyone!
American singer-songwriter Hayes Carll gives his listeners a blend of country, folk and rock, usually accompanied by a backing band. Some of the songs on his latest album, KMAG YOYO, slow to acoustic conversations. One of these songs is a Christmas song. If you are tired of the familiar, repetitive pop songs we get deafened with every year (Shane MacGowan’s heart-wrenching vocals aside), but still love the idea of a sweet, emotive song to celebrate the Christmas holidays with and get you in the spirit, Carll’s ‘Grateful For Christmas’ will do the trick, although this superb song is more likely to make you cry than hurry down to Winter Wonderland for festive ice skating, mainly owing to the turbulent topic of family.
The song itself describes three different Christmases, separated by many years and deaths in the family. The first Christmas sees Hayes Carll the kid as he travels to Waco (the Carlls are from Texas) with his brother and their parents to a houseful of aunts and uncles, grandparents and dog.
This sentimental look at family life at Christmas goes a step further with the chorus:
Let’s all gather ’round, Grandpa say the blessing Aunt Jane, she fell asleep, Mary Kay burned the dressing But we got all of our friends and family here And I’m grateful for Christmas this year
But the second Christmas gathering mentioned, held in Houston, takes on a tinge of sadness, with the mention of a few of the relatives no longer around, while trying to keep as much of the expected happiness as it can. This year ‘Dad’ has to say the blessing. In this shrunken family gathering it is cold enough to snow, but it doesn’t; snow is a Christmas treat and therefore unrealistic, and this song accentuates what Christmas is rather than what it could be.
The pattern continues in a third, unnamed, location. This time the differences are extreme and the loneliness among the last remaining family members might seem exaggerated, but this is simply down to the skip in time between the second verse and the third. The images and memories this verse will evoke for you, especially when the narrator is forced to take his turn to say the blessing during the last chorus, accompanied by Hayes Carll’s gruff but tender voice, so slow he almost talks his way through the song, will undoubtedly tug at your heartstrings.
As a general rule, prank phonecalls aren‘t funny. Yet, somehow, the call to a greetings card shop assistant (to be found on Arab Strap‘s Ten Years of Tears) has become the soundtrack to Christmas in our house. The caller peppers the assistant with stupid questions: ‘What Christmas do you have?’ ‘What colour’s the tinsel you have there?‘, ‘What‘s the most Christmas scene you have?‘, ‘Do you have a wide selection of cards and wrapping?’, ‘Is it a vast range?‘, ‘Do you have any Easter cards with a Christmas theme?’ His questions are met with helpfulness and, then, increasing bemusement. ‘Everything for Christmas?!’, the caller joyously repeats in childlike fashion when told the shop has all he could ever want for the festive season. Everything for Christmas – what more could one ever want? The hours sail by in our house as we quote these lines back to one another. Repeating comical lines back to people isn’t particularly clever or funny either, but it does serve to amuse yourself over a long and slow festive period. Christmas is all about bad jokes, after all. In fact, the drunken, glum tone of Ten Years of Tears (Arab Strap‘s break-up/best of album) serves as a suitable soundtrack to our Christmas holiday. Even the album cover, with Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton looking drunk and fed up at their awful, and awfully quiet, retirement party, looks a little like Christmas Day back at my parents‘ house. To go for more Scottish rockers unwilling to embrace the festive spirit, I‘ll pick ‘Xmas Steps’ by Mogwai as my favourite Christmas song. I prefer it to the slightly different ‘Christmas Steps’ by Mogwai. Neither version has anything to do with Christmas, and they’re all the better for it.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis