28 December 2005

Christmas On Two Continents

I've been hearing so many people moan about how much they hate Christmas and what an ordeal it all is that I'm starting to wonder if there's something wrong with me for enjoying it so much. Granted, I didn't have much in the way of responsibilities to weigh me down: no houseful of relatives to entertain, no meals to cook, no Christmas tree to decorate (this last was not my doing; I'd gladly have an enormous Christmas tree, but Olivia, who occupies the front room where the tree would go, absolutely refuses to have one in the house), and almost no Christmas shopping.

It's not that I'm against presents, but as it happens, I was going to be travelling on Christmas Day, and there wasn't much room in my suitcase, so I decided to only get gifts for my young niece and nephew. I announced to all the adults that they weren't getting anything this year, and that they were similarly absolved from buying me anything. No one complained.

So with my Christmas cards all sent a week ahead of time (new record for me!) and my suitcase packed a full day in advance (also unprecedented), I was free to enjoy the holidays as I chose. That entailed drinking a lot of coffee and eating a fair bit of chocolate cake in Soho, and a couple trips down to Trafalgar Square to hear the various groups singing Christmas carols. I was a bit surprised that Mayor Ken allowed a Christmas tree and religious carols in his recently redesigned square; I would have thought at the very least he would have insisted on equal time for Muslim carols and Kwanzaa carry-ons, but no, it was all rather traditional, right down to the crowd of drunks in flashing-light Santa hats who demanded that the choir sing "Silent Night" NOW, and when their request was not forthcoming, decided to sing it themselves while the choir struggled to get through "The Holly And The Ivy."

But apart from that it was all pretty good-natured and even rather beautiful. The choir finished, and a larger, all-male choir took its place. The crowd grew larger too, but when it was announced that the next performers would be the Gay Men's Chorus, the man standing next to me in the front row gave a loud harrumph and pointedly dragged his three children away as they screamed, "Wanna hear Chwistmas cawols." Everyone else, including many of the Christians who'd been singing along devoutly with the previous chorale, seemed to enjoy the gay men's presentation which, surprisingly (to me, anyway) featured a number of straight-out (so to speak) religious carols, before they veered off into a perhaps ill-advised calypso rendition of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."

Christmas Eve found me spending most of the day indoors packing for my trip on the following morning, but in the evening I ventured down to the West End to meet up with Will Zatopek, Steve Griswald, Pauline Pickle and Pippa Whatever-she's-calling-herself-this-week. But for some reason, nearly every pub in London, not to mention the restaurants and the public transport system, had decided to shut up shop early. Unless my memory is playing bigger tricks than usual on me, pubs used to stay open until midnight on Christmas Eve and it was quite a tradition for people to gather there to fortify themselves against the two days of enforced family togetherness that lay ahead, but not this year. So we spent most of the evening wandering like hapless pilgrims through the increasingly deserted streets of Soho in search of a welcoming venue. We'd finally settled in at the Duke of Wellington in Wardour Street when the bartender announced that they too would be closing soon and I suddenly realised I'd have to dash if I was to make it to midnight mass in time.

The mass, preceded by carols, was if anything better than ever this year, though there was one moment of tension when, just as the procession was about to enter the sanctuary, a trio of latecomers arrived who resembled the Mod Squad by way of an Adam and the Ants concert. There was the requisite black guy with a 70s Afro, a blandly pretty white chick, and the most picturesque of the bunch, a white guy with a green mohican styled into wavy iguana-type spikes and with Indian war paint splashed across his cheeks.

The only seats left in the church were on the altar itself, and I'd always thought they were reserved for the parish elite, but apparently that's not the case, as the trendy latecomers were led to a spot directly behind the priest, a charmingly stogy and ponderous septuagenarian who makes no secret of his disdain for modern things (the entire service, apart from the homily, is still conducted in the Latin that the rest of the Church abandoned decades ago), raised half an eyebrow as he took his own seat, and that was all it took to ensure near-perfect behaviour from the green-haired one and his companions. I was reminded of the time in 1967 when my friend Darrell and I, high on LSD and a few days away from being homeless, decided to drop in on midnight mass in Ypsilanti, Michigan, thinking it would be "a trip" to goof on the ancient rituals. In that case, the priest literally barred the door to us, ignoring our protestations that he probably would have turned Jesus away too, on grounds of his having a beard.

Mass got out at 1:10 am, leaving me faced with a 5+ mile walk home, since Britain, where no more than one out of twelve people regularly attends church, still sees fit to close down the entire country, including the public transportation system, to honour a Christian holiday (a recent survey claimed to show that less than half the British people even knew what religious event Christmas was supposed to commemorate). With millions of Muslims, Hindus, Rastafarians and atheists among the population, you'd think there'd be somebody willing to drive the trains and buses (and who might like to go someplace served by trains and buses), but never mind. Maybe next century.

But I was extremely lucky to find one of the few taxis on the street, driven by an Indian Jew from Bombay who sounded more like a New Yorker when, on finding out where I'd just been, asked, "Whadda ya, religious or something?" This is not, to put it mildly, how most London cabbies communicate, but he turned out to be a great guy with a wealth of stories to tell, and I, having saved at least an hour and a half's walking (crucial, since I'd have to be up again at 6:30 am, didn't at all regret the 21 pound fare.

Christmas morning dawned clear and icy, and I had a half hour walk pulling a wheeled suitcase to Paddington Station, from whence the only functioning rail service in the United Kingdom would take me to Heathrow for an early morning flight to San Francisco. The idea was to get to the Bay Area in time for Christmas dinner with my mother and most of the family, and it worked, though I was a bit more tired than I anticipated when I finally got there. My brother's children were similarly tired, and cranky, too, as they more or less brushed off my offer of presents with, "We've already got enough presents," words I never thought I would hear any self-respecting child utter. Still, the dinner was superb, it was wonderful to see my family again, and everyone, apart from the children perhaps, was remarkably well-behaved. Not a single brawl, not even a minor political dispute, and as I went to sleep that night at something like 8 or 9 am English time, I must admit I was still humming Christmas carols and thinking how lovely it had all been.

No comments: