He did not despise the lights and trees that began appearing in gardens and houses in late November, but the display of Christmas gewgaws in shops since summer had made him immune to their charms.
Down the road he heard an electric pump breathing life into a vast snowman. Reindeer hauled a sleigh along the edge of a roof, Santa looked furtively over his shoulder as he climbed a ladder up the wall, and blue and white icicles hung flashing from the bay window. Tacky, perhaps, but not without humour, and what struck him was the effort and expense that had gone into their purchase, deployment, and the electricity to power them. A few more houses like that and the council could switch off the streetlights until New Year. He might suggest it if he saw his councillor in the pub.
The night had come early, as they did this time of year. Lights draped over a hedge not only flashed on and off in what seemed a random sequence but also danced around in the cold wind. The natural world was co-operating with human efforts to brighten the dark season.
As, day by day, one house after another acknowledged the coming of Christmas he began to wonder if people noticed and judged his own home’s lack of adornment. Was he being marked out as a miserable old git? Well, if people looked carefully, they would see his Christmas cactus carefully tended and in full bloom, even if the daft thing did insist on coming out when the Americans give thanks for the good harvest they enjoyed in 1621. With any luck it would still be flowering at Christmas.
He would bring in the fir tree which had been growing in a pot in the garden for the past few years, but not yet. As the years went by it seemed increasingly perfunctory. He remembered housefuls of people, laughter, excitement. That was how it should be. Now it was fragmented. They would all come, but at different times, on tight schedules.
Perhaps the keen decorators truly believed in what they were doing, that Father Christmas really would be more likely to call at a house where a sign read, “Santa, please call here”. Maybe they just wanted to create some magic for their children, magic they remembered from their own childhood. No doubt they would eat the carrots and mince pies, drink the sherry they encouraged their children to leave by the fireplace. What about those with underfloor heating? What story did they make up for the appearance of presents on Christmas morning?
On the bus people took up more room than usual, their bags stuffed with stuff. One man brought on a Christmas tree, squeezed into stockinette. Now, he thought, that would hold a lot of presents if you tied up the end. A group of teenagers sat at the back, faces all a-glow from their phones, scowling under their Santa’s hats. Must remember to block up the chimney, he thought.
He arrived at work for the late-evening shift and made his way up the back stairs to the staff room, where he changed into his uniform. That it should come to this, he thought. Words from the Scottish play came to mind, “that which should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but, in their stead, curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.” He would not utter them, even here, but they steeled him for the fray, grounded him in the art of performance.
He tightened his belt, rouged his cheeks, applied and checked his beard, pulled on his boots and arranged his hood around his yellowy white curls. Assuming a benevolent expression, he made his way into the grotto, his sonorous, “Ho, ho, ho!” evoking gasps from small children queuing for their turn to tell him what they hoped he would bring them in a week’s time.
Old hands had told him of the days when children came in on their own and took possession of Santa, climbed all over you. No physical contact now, even after a Disclosure and Barring Service check, and parents kept up running commentaries, making sure child and Santa knew what to say and how to behave.
Deep breath. Now for it.