Lo! and it came to pass, in the rain of North West London, that a love was born unto me for the festival of Christmas, that once I did dread!
Yea verily, the holly spirit has entered me, banishing forever the imp of ‘bah humbug’. I have seen the lights!
Yes, even as Camden’s elves prepare to festoon Hampstead High Street with dancing festive LEDs and retailers urge us to part with our hard-earned cash I feel the ghost of Christmas Cynicism Past chased away by glad tidings of great joy.
And what, you may ask, has brought about this uncharacteristic reassessment of a religious festival that has been commercialised to obscene excess?
How can I bring myself to rejoice at the prospect of a Christmas goose force-fed by consumerism and fattened to the point of liver damage?
Heaven forefend that I might have grown fluffy in my old age and begun to believe that what’s sauce for the goose shall be sauce for the gander. Nah – it’s because I’ve taken a gander at the source of our Yuletide tradition and I’ve had an epiphany.
At this darkest time of the year, everyone needs a bit of seasonal cheer in their stocking. But if neither religion nor retail therapy does it for you, you can end up Scrooged. Fortunately I’ve found it’s in the gift of Hampstead Heath.
And it all started with a log…
But before I explain, and since we are in Hampstead, Dr Freud, perhaps it’s time to revisit my childhood to understand my issues with Christmas.
I think it’s entangled with my Hungarian roots. My Sussex classmates celebrated sumptuous Christmases on the 25th December while my family exchanged modest, gifts on the evening of the 24th. Then it was early to bed and early to rise for a journey of biblical proportions across several counties to gather with those members of the family who had survived the War and settled in the UK.
Though all the chairs were occupied there always seemed to be gaps and no one abover a certain age spoke about their childhood Christmases.
When my Mum died that sense of absence amid the presents drew closer still, dulling the glitter of the tinsel.
But Christmas is a celebration of nativity. And, with the advent of my own children not only did I get the opportunity to play with Lego again but I also found myself passing on some family traditions; the first of which was decorating a Yule-log.
Now, before you get visions of chocolate and cream I must explain that this is the wooden version, bedecked with holly and ivy, glitter and tinsel; gathered with misted breath and mittened hands; then daubed with Copydex glue and finished with a candle that, once lit, sent hibernating beetles scuttling across the kitchen table.
It’s something my siblings and I enjoyed doing with Mum when we were little. And passing it on to a new generation brings a part of her back.
That first log, taken from the bough of a fallen tree near Kenwood on a cold and frosty morning, helped me come to terms with Christmas. It reminded me that weathering the bleak midwinter warrants a celebration and, whatever justifications have accreted to that need, it remains a blend of thanksgiving, self-indulgence and coming together, even if nowadays our survival is, generally, more assured.
So, while others shop till they drop under the Christmas lights, munch mince pies, or enjoy nine lessons and carols in one of Hampstead’s beautiful churches, I shall be rejoicing in the elemental glories of the Heath’s ponds and hillsides.
Of course not all traditions are worth preserving. So instead of traipsing halfway across England on the 25th December I shall follow my new custom and join the festivities at The Highgate Men’s Pond for the Christmas Day swim.
There’s no better way to be reminded of the frisson of life immersed in deep mid-winter than sharing the warmth of others who call this area home?
Then I shall return to my family to dive into a Christmas lunch of Community Market produce, before opening a few presents and remembering the absents. It’s good to be a Heathen on holly-day.
Merry Yuletide everyone!