Xmas is coming…

Illustration for 1996 Lunar Tree Calendar
Catriona Stamp

MOTHER XMAS – Early on Christmas Eve, the head of the household went to the woods and searched for a withered tree-stump, which he then carved into a roughly made figure of an old woman. This was the Cailleach Nollaich, or Christmas Old Wife, a sinister figure representing, not fertility and life, but the evils of winter and death. At dusk, the figure was brought indoors and laid upon the burning peats of the house-fire. All the family sat round the hearth to watch it blaze and perish in the flames, and when it was was finally reduced to ashes the rest of the evening was spent in boisterous games and merriment.

Cailleach Nollaich – Gaelic midwinter tradition

We had a very ambivalent relationship with Christmas at People In Common. Some of us felt that any meaning it had for us had got lost in the celebration of consumerism and the Cod-Christianity that surrounded it – Over the years we went along with it, moaned about it, rejected it, focused on the pagan elements of it and even invented our own traditions around it.

Most years that I can remember we would go out and forage greenery from bits of wasteland, maybe even from the woods in Townley Park and decorate our Clarence Street house with it for the winter solstice. We even once went to a conifer plantation somewhere near Sabden and ‘foraged’ a proper Xmas tree.

One year, just to prove a point, me and Barbara did building work on Xmas day.(Can’t remember if anyone else joined in.) We spent most of the day knocking a doorway through to the house next door to our main communal house which we had recently bought. Once we had proved that Xmas was ‘just another day like any other’ we joined in with the rest of the festivities going on.

I guess we were trying to make a political point. Something along the lines of ‘this festival really has no meaning for us and we’re only going along with it because everyone else is’. Which is a bit surprising in some ways given that the other mainstream raison d’etre for Xmas is to encourage families/communities to get together and enjoy themselves and build relationship and that was something we would have wholeheartedly agreed with.

Of course we bought our kids presents, but that was about the only consistent element of ‘traditional’ festivities that was a constant. We even tried variations on gift giving among ourselves one year. By doing a version of Secret Santa.but with the added twist that it had to involve some element of making it yourself, rather than just buying something. I recall I put together a sewing kit for ten year old David. Not sure what he made of it.

Sometime in the mid 1980’s we invented out own caroling tradition. Probably inspired by my going on the Welfare State Winter School . For a number of years on the mid-winter solstice we did a tour of our friends houses around Burnley. In the first couple of years dropping in completely unannounced and sang them a seasonal song and wished them good health and a happy new year.

We sang various seasonal songs with a twist over the years we did it: New Years Eve by Si Kahn, a decidedly pagan version of the Holly & the Ivy, the Watersons Malpas Wassail .One year me Kate, David and Finn did a puppet mummers play in peoples front rooms. After the first couple of years friends anticipated our arrival and had mulled pies and minced wine at the ready for us. The caroling ‘tradition’ faded after we moved to the Mill.

Puppet Mummers – At Tess,Jim & Alex’s in Trafalgar flats.

In the winter of 1994/5 me, Kate and Finn spent Xmas in America.This was the first time me and Finn had flown. We went out a week before Kate because it turned out that prices went up so steeply in the run up to Xmas that if you went a week earlier you could save enough to cover the extra weeks hostel and food costs. After a week doing some sightseeing and a bit of Xmas shoping in New York, Kate joined us and we caught the Greyhound coach heading down to Virginia to stay with our friend Pam Dawling for a couple of weeks over Xmas at the big Twin Oaks commune near Louisa.

Twin Oaks had been going since the late 1960’s and had developed a number of their own mid-winter/Xmas traditions which we were welcome to take part in – sometimes enthusiastically encouraged to join in with. On Christmas Eve they had a group reading of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol which we were recruited to take part in because of our “Wonderful English accents!’

Over the holiday period someone organised a black & white film festival – members could put in a request for a particular film and the organiser would track down and order a video copy. This is way before the likes of Netxflix and Twin Oaks had a ban on television in the community – if you’ve experienced US TV you can guess why. There were 3 or 4 different films each day.

There was a Panto – a version of The Wizard of Oz rewritten by some of the members to be relevant to the community. The words of the Alt-Wicked Witch of the West are forever burned into my memory – “You have no idea how long a consensus process can last!”

And at a some point after dinner one evening we played the Pink Elephant Game. The Game is a variation of the White Elephant Game with an added dose of Communal Misrule energy thrown in for good measure. It is essentially a present swapping game that gets more and more manic as it goes on. Ending up with the entire room dashing round the room chasing the present that they want to end up with – I came away with a bag of California beach sand .

Today I’ve got over my ambivalent relationship with Christmas. Most of the bits of it that I find distasteful I am happy just to ignore now. I recognise the value of the family and community get together bits. And what I appreciate most of all is just the chance that it offers for a mid-winter pause. A chance to rest and take stock at the turning of the year. These days me & Kate go out for a mid-day picnic at a waterfall somewhere in the Lakes or the Dales for a quite Christmas day celebration. And for the last eight years here at Forgebank Cohousing on the Mid-winter Solstice we have played the Pink Elephant Game.

The Kipper Family – ‘Traditional’ Norfolk carol

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