The Gifts of Christmas Past

Christmas is nearly upon us (again) and it’s got me thinking about gifts. It’s never easy to pick out gifts for those we love, and, to make it more difficult, people tend to treat themselves throughout the year. No one wants to wait for Christmas anymore in the hope they’ll get what they want under the tree. How do you come up with something for someone who has already everything? Perhaps there’s more disposable income to spend on little luxuries for ourselves whenever we feel the urge to splurge; it leaves little in the way of ideas at Christmas.

Disposable income wasn’t a thing my parents enjoyed when I was growing up with my three brothers and one sister in a council house in Liverpool. Having said that, my parents never let us down when it came to Christmas; we always felt well looked after. That was down in part to my mum putting little things away for Christmas, starting earlier in the year, whenever she could find a spare few pence to spend, and dad working two jobs in the months leading up to Christmas. He’d finish a full day at the office before taking the night shift at the post office sorting depot. Even then with his extra income, there was never an excess of money to spend on festive cheer. Overdue bills had to be paid first, so Dad would supplement the Christmas surprises by making toys in the secrecy of his shed. Always pushed to finish the projects before the holiday deadline, we’d often wake on Christmas day to find toys with a note saying: “Father Christmas says the paint is still wet.”

Mum and Dad always put a lot of thought into our presents. As a young boy with an enquiring mind, I had longed and begged for a chemistry set. I saw myself in a white lab coat, surrounded by test tubes and Bunsen burners, about to discover the cure for Covid. Okay, we never heard of Covid back then, but I’d have discovered a cure if it had been. Sadly, after my exploits with a homemade firework the previous Bonfire Night, a box of hazardous chemicals was not an option that Christmas.

Not wanting to discourage the young scientist in me while keeping me (and the family) safe, my parents surprised me with a microscope. Instead of being disappointed, I thought the substitute was truly the most wonderful gift I had ever received. This little treasure was everything I could have wished for and more. Mum and Dad knew I would love it. I spent the rest of Christmas taking blood from squeamish family members, dissecting flies, exploring pond water, searching for worm’s eyeballs (I was sure they must have some) and anything else that would look cool under magnification. Sixty years on and I still have that little microscope and it rates as one of the best gifts ever.

My little microscope, I was thrilled

There were many wonderful gifts over the years, and as I grew older, I came to appreciate the sacrifices my parents had made to make our childhood Christmases so special. It wasn’t Santa who’d been splashing out to make Christmas so merry, it was Mum and Dad, no magic involved, just love for their kids and a determination to do their best for us. 

If I had to single out just one Christmas gift that meant more than all the others it would be the one I received early one year. The year was 1981 and it was three weeks before Christmas to be exact. My wife and I had taken the monumental decision to emigrate to either the U.S.A. or Canada. Things had been bad in the UK for a couple of years and the economy was dismal. The country was in a recession with high unemployment, my industry of boat building had taken a particularly hard hit. To make matters worse, we had not long taken out our first mortgage before interest rates jumped to 21% from the 11% we began with. We were in imminent danger of losing our home when, as a last resort, we put it up for sale and by a miracle, sold it in twelve days. Houses had generally been on the market for months if not years at the time. With the proceeds of the sale, we paid off the bank and had enough funds to purchase a plane ticket for me to go find a job. We had then just the exact amount to get us and our three small children across the Atlantic, assuming I was successful in finding work. 

Where does Christmas gift giving come into this story, I hear you ask. Well, I’m getting there but I just wanted to set the scene. So, three weeks until Christmas, I’m set to catch my very first flight in the morning, when my gorgeous wife, Christine, hands me a small package wrapped in gold Christmas paper and a bright red ribbon. She explained that it wouldn’t wait until after my return on the day before Christmas Eve. Inside the tiny package I discovered a small gold Saint Christopher necklace. Being the patron saint of travelers, Christine told me that the hard working saint would bring me safely home to my family.

I flew the next day to Florida and after a fruitless search for employment, on to Toronto, Canada. A bus trip to Owen Sound in the north brought success and the offer of a job building boats on the picturesque shores of Georgian Bay. I returned home safely to Liverpool just in time for Christmas. Exactly forty years later, I’m sitting here writing this story, not in Canada, but in my Australian home on the other side of the world and the Saint Christopher necklace is hanging around my neck. In those years it has taken me and my family safely across three continents and God only knows how many towns and cities to live. After years of travelling for work and play, I sat down one day and calculated that since 1981 I’ve travelled the equivalent of 58 times around the equator, visited 30 different countries at least once, some, into high double digits, and Saint Chris has been with me every inch of the way.  

I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but if I was to reach for my necklace while sitting on the tarmac at an airport and found it to be missing, I might just freak out. I’ve worn this wonderful, thoughtful gift every day of my life since that Christmas of 1981. Despite Saint Christopher, I suspect it’s the love with which the gift was given that has kept me safe until now. Like everyone else, our recent travel plans have been on hold. Nevertheless, we’re looking forward to a time when adventures will soon return. And, when they do, my best Christmas gift ever will be with me along for the ride. 

I suspect it’s the love with which the gift was given that has kept me safe

Seeing as this is my last blog for 2021, I’ll take this opportunity to thank my readers  for all your support, especially those who have bought and read Black Bones, Red Earth this year. I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll be back in the New Year with tales and thoughts to share. So, until then, I’ll wish you all a wonderfully magical Christmas and a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year.