On Christmas Day in the 1970s, my father would come back from a central Oxford pub which no longer exists and my mother would come back from work, for Christmas dinner at about two o’clock in the afternoon. No Christmas presents were allowed to be opened until after dinner, until everyone had arrived. Though some traditions have fallen by the wayside, I still keep to this practice today.
My uncle often preferred to work and back then, I never really understood why. Years later, I find myself also working at Christmas, driving my taxi, randomly collecting people wandering around the streets of Abingdon well into in the early hours, like lost souls in purgatory and delivering them safely home.
Just after the start of Oxford's Christmas Lights event, back in November, chatting in a central Oxford pub, still lined with black and white photographic portraits taken in the 1980s "look, there's my Uncle John," I said happily "there and over there – these photographs have been there for thirty years. They are ghosts on the walls - literally". But they are benign.
These last seven years of taxi driving, work for me has mostly been a means of escape from the memories of Christmas past. But also a means of escape from the memories of Christmas present, a new tradition being the annual arrival of correspondence a few days before Christmas, attempting to resurrect a familial dispute.
It saddens me beyond measure that I am in that euphemistic word estranged from my own brother and no longer see him. But my heart is gladdened by those not even related to me who have shown me kindness, generosity and even what a functional family actually is.
From my regular customer last year came the gift of a bag of dried grass, from the Tatras mountains, on the Polish / Slovak border and bought for a few pence at Abingdon's Polish delicatessen. A simple enough gift, it is said to symbolise the straw which would have existed in the stable in Bethlehem, at the birth place of the baby boy born to save us from ourselves. It is strewn on the dinner table, as a reminder of the reason for the celebration, amongst the splendour of a western European Christmas meal.
So this Christmas, I will once more pray the impossible prayers and dream the impossible dreams. And in the midst of an Oxfordshire winter, when we are belting out O Little Town of Bethlehem, I will think once more of the sweltering heat in a cave in Palestine, where I stood last year amongst a motley group of pilgrims and belted out lines from my favourite Christmas carol, evangelical Anglicans among us with raised left hands: "O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray"
Sometimes, prayer is all we have. And this Christmas Day, we are in need of hope, kindness, generosity and love more than ever before.
as published in the Abingdon Herald, Wednesday 21 December 2016