Thursday, December 24, 2015

The ghosts of Christmas Past

It's a strange phenomenon, the power of Christmas Eve to resurrect memories so strongly and yet so randomly. As I listened to the first of the closing voluntaries from the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's, there came into my mind a memory of myself, in my late teens, stricken with some inconvenient malady on Christmas Eve and spending that short afternoon in bed with the radio on, drifting in and out of sleep. I can't remember what ailed me, and cannot think it lasted, but at the time it felt unreal and solitary as the day darkened.

The small me in the photo (I think I was two) lived in blue dungarees and had to be coaxed out of them for family Christmas tea. (The yellow duck didn't join us - his red felt beak was too chewed for respectable company). We ate Christmas lunch, I remember clearly, in our top flat in Novar Drive, Hyndland, and went for tea to my grandparents' house in Hyndland Road. The whole extended family - the Stewarts, that is - would turn up there at some point in the day, though as I was the first of my generation I was the sole child for the first few post-war years. Families tended to live close, and there was public transport for those who were beyond walking distance.

I was remembering this morning how in my early married life I didn't do any Christmas food: my parents' house was ten minutes' walk from our flat (still in Hyndland) and we went there for lunch and stayed, stupefied, until it was time for bed. My first ever Christmas cake was made just before I had my first child - I'm sure I've recounted how, having slipped on ice in Clarence Drive, I had such a sore behind that I couldn't sit down, and dispelled my fears by baking. But the Glasgow Christmasses didn't end with our emigration to Dunoon; Cal Mac ferries seem to me to have run on Christmas Day and we headed back to Glasgow with our baby son. I do recall, however, that on the first year in Dunoon I iced the cake just before heading out to Midnight Mass: for the first time in my life I was attached to a church and had singing to do.

The long years of running Christmas myself occupied the greatest part of my life, having ended only five or six years ago. It still seems odd not to be making stuffing on Christmas Eve, and ramming it into a recalcitrant bird before church, odd not to waken to the smell of cooking and worry that the overnight temperature had been too high - or too low if the smell wasn't making it as far as the bedroom. There are no small children for whom stockings will have to be filled. I no longer have the restless wait for all the grown-up family to be safely here, nor the unholy rush between the end of term and the 25th. There is, theoretically, all the time in the world.

Time, in fact, to miss family; to look forward to seeing some and regret not seeing others; to have a suitcase packed and worry about taking the right things or forgetting presents or cooking brandy. Time to think about having dinner so that we can have a proper rest before our midnight sing/play/pray (have I got the intercessions? the music?) Time to wonder how we ever had the energy to drag sleeping choristers from their beds to come with us (really).

Now these choristers are cooking turkeys, looking after young children, preparing for visitors, in different parts of the country, and we are here, with the dark firth calm at last and the rain peppering the windows. Everything changes but the message of that distant birth. Even the carols - tonight our introit will be Advent Song, which is only four years old. And then Advent will be over, the waiting over.

And it will be Christmas.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Three snacks and out

I found myself, in a procrastinating moment, leafing through a leaflet from the Co-op, a Christmas leaflet promising all manner of festive treats that could readily be bought or whipped up using a range of Co-op products. I was lured to check out the helpful little labels at the foot of each recipe - you know, the ones with the 'traffic-light' system of grading content of fat, salt, sugar etc.

I suppose I was thinking of the disturbing news the other day that doctors no longer know what the average healthy weight of an 8-year old is because almost all children in Scotland are overweight or obese. It seems that the adult population is also heading for the buffers fully laden, as it were, and the NHS is doomed as a result. (Ok - I was sweeping a floor at the time and may have condensed this slightly, but you get my drift.)

One caller on the dreaded Call Kaye programme suggested labelling every instant meal with an example of the kind of exercise that would burn off the calories contained therein. I thought this a marvellous idea - it was the realisation that to rid myself of the calories of an average pizza I would have to climb a Munroe carrying a pack that had me decide that life was too short to eat pizza and would probably be shorter if I did.

Back to the leaflet. On average, the calories contained in the average helping of the snacks whose recipes looked so tempting - and these are one- or two-bite nibbles we're talking here - the average content was between 400 and 500 calories. Thats's appalling. The main culprits seemed to lie in the use of cream and butter, even on apparently healthful things like sprouts. Three of these snacks would constitute the recommended calorific average for someone of my age, build and height for a whole day unless I took some exercise. 

That's it, really. I'll probably eat a few such items over the gluttony season, leave my body to complain afterwards of the abuse, but not without thinking about it. I'm not miserable about that at all - any more than I am about cutting out, say, oysters from my diet (they have dire consequences for me). And I am reminded of something my father said when I was a skinny teen going to the cinema regularly and eating a bag of peanuts in the darkness. "That's enough to feed a starving family for a day."

He was ahead of his time, I think.

Friday, December 11, 2015

All we go down ...

I was at a funeral yesterday, not as a mourner but as a provider of music, one of a quartet singing the Kontakion for the Departed at the end of a service in the Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae. This was significant for me personally in one important feature: it was doing exactly that at my very first funeral in that same cathedral 42 years ago that convinced me of all that I now believe in, as a consequence of which I was confirmed 9 months later and as a further consequence of which I came to live in Dunoon. There were differences, of course - that first funeral was of a friend, it was a requiem mass, the coffin was between the choir stalls and therefore right on front of me.

So I'd actually have gone a long way to sing this music again in that place and with these same musicians. But another truth dawned on me yesterday as I sang, and after the plainsong Nunc Dimittis with which we finished. It was a truth about music - that kind of music, timeless and beautiful and still. For after all the words, the telling to God of the deceased's character (thou knowest, Lord, the secret of our hearts ... ) and the hymns that were deemed suitable, this was the moment when it seemed to me that the otherness of death came close, that the life of the world was dimmed and the life of heaven opened, and the possibilities of eternity were real and endless.

And weeping o'er the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia.

I would like to think that this music will be present for my end.