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A child's Christmas to relish

Dylan Thomas hits it on the nail at the start of that little classic of his, "A Child's Christmas in Wales. "One Christmas was so much like another ... that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

Past Christmases do run together. They had their intense particularities at the time, of course. Like the year I became the owner of a longed-for drop-handlebar racing bike. Or the year my older brother packaged a tiny gift in a Russian-doll construction of ever-larger boxes until you would imagine it contained a fridge or a filing cabinet. (It's telling that I recall the packaging, but not the little gift.)

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Then there would be particular years when our mum would get soap from almost everyone, or stockings: "Soap year! Stocking year!" we'd chant.

Dad didn't have sock or handkerchief years - he simply got a fresh supply of both every year. And every year he received a small round pot of a substance called "Gentleman's Relish." He would smile wryly and mutter: "She shouldn't have." I really don't know exactly what "Gentleman's Relish" was, though it tasted like a mixture of anchovy, horseradish, and sawdust. It wasn't specially known to be a favorite of Dad's, but this did not deter Cousin Noel's generosity.

Cousin Noel was named for the unfortunate timing of her birth. I say "unfortunate" because I have sympathy for those whose birthdays are close to, or, worse still, as in Noel's case, on Christmas Day.

E.H. Shepard, illustrator of the Christopher Robin and Pooh books, observes this phenomenon in his memoirs. Both he and his brother Cyril, he says, "suffered from having our birthdays too near Christmas Day. People were apt to make one present do for the two occasions, which we did not consider fair." So perhaps something of Noel's rather spiky character could be attributed to an annual sense of being short-changed.

My brother and I had no such difficulties.

Compared with some children today - given a bewildering superfluity of toys and games and books and CDs and videos - we probably did not receive that many presents.

But to us it was a cornucopia. And the carefully ordered opening of our presents was one of the year-in, year-out consistencies of Christmas Day. It was carefully orchestrated in three distinct movements.

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First came the pillowcase at the end of the bed (we didn't use stockings hung on a mantelpiece), every last little gift in it carefully wrapped by Mum. I knew it was her work. She was one of the world's arch-wrappers. Even tangerines and nuts would be scrupulously packaged. She knew the importance of not making it too easy to get at a present.

She always waited till I was sound asleep before depositing this white sack of goodies. I knew for certain, though, that she didn't wear red baggy trousers and a white beard when she did it. That fellow lived in a big store a good drive away in Bradford. These first presents of the day were undone all over the bedclothes, a long night's anticipation excitingly ended.

Then, halfway through the morning (would the drawing-room door ever be opened?), each member of the family unwrapped his main presents in strict rotation. Everything was noted in a book so that when it came to the dread writing of thank-you letters we didn't thank the wrong people to the confusion of ancient aunts and distant friends.

Then at lunchtime the two older half-brothers and their families would arrive, bearing gifts. These would be added to our packages for them, piled ready at the foot of the Christmas tree.

But we had to wait till late in the afternoon to open them.

Today's free-for-all society makes such ordered anticipation improbable. Everyone dives in simultaneously, and nobody sees what others have been given.

I wouldn't go back to those old patriarchal times. But all that calculated waiting, part of the certainty of a known annual ritual, did add enormously to our childish (if not our gentlemanly) relish.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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