Love is All You Need at Christmas – from London to South Africa
We sat as a family picking over the remains of our traditional Trinidad Christmas Day breakfast of freshly baked coconut bread and ham that Mum had cooked in the oven, cooled, then glazed with honey and studded with cloves, and all washed down with tea specially made in a large earthenware teapot.
Already my thoughts had turned to dinner! My job was to keep an eye on the pots filled with vegetables.
‘Boy, don’t let them get soft.’
That was the crime of the century in our home. No soft English nursery food for us. The vegetables would join the bird in the oven after being partially boiled, with me sticking a knife into them to make sure they were still hard. To my eternal frustration, the turkey took hours to land on the table.
‘How long?’ I asked myself, ‘does it take for this damn bird to cook?’
And then it started. Someone in the kitchen had turned the radio, as if by invisible touch, to maximum volume. The chief suspect was my youngest brother. He was nowhere to be seen. The little rat! He must have recognised the lyrics I grew to hate.
So this is Christmas and what have you done
Another year over, a new one just begun …
A very merry Christmas and a happy new year
Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fears
… and so it went, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s hopeful lyrics. A key moment of reflection in our London-based migrant household.
In the comfort of our warm kitchen with double glazing and central heating, keeping the worst of the winter chill at bay, my eyes searched the dull, grey sky for a sign. I didn’t have long to wait, like an itch you wanted to come and then go.
‘Mummy, look!’ I marvelled as the first flakes of white dust hit the stone-cold ground outside. Now we were all looking as the sky gave its permission for a cleansing white blanket of snow to gather and swirl its way into our affections.
As the oldest of three brothers, I knew better than to rush out and build a snowman or engage in snow fights without planning ahead for the bitter cold outside. But my brothers rushed to the back door which led to our small garden to get a closer view, shouting and giggling, their heads banging together in excitement.
Then Mummy, with a hint of malice, found her Christmas voice. ‘I told you Clifford!’
Daddy replied with a slight dismissive tone. ‘Yes, you did,’ referring to the bet they had at that time of year over whether it would or wouldn’t snow on Christmas Day. He sounded none pleased that he’d lost this one. Daddy, who was right in every thought and utterance 364 days of the year, was already plotting his revenge.
In unison the boys shouted, ‘Mummy, Daddy – can we?’ and Daddy already had the key for the back door in his hand.
The boys ran into the snow while my parents chatted amiably – it was a rarity to see them so relaxed.
As I watched them in this precious Christmas moment that would soon fade like the melting snow, I wished it could last forever.
LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED AT CHRISTMAS
When I was five I told my dad that I’d like to be Father Christmas. I wanted to enter the farmyard on a sleigh, and greet all the workers with a hearty ‘HO HO HO!’
They would smile as they opened their very practical gifts which my mother had chosen: sets of stainless steel cutlery for the women and socks and handkerchiefs for the men. Then I’d fly into the sunset with my reindeer, and loudly ring my bell, while everyone sang, ‘Let it snow, let is snow, let it snow.’
Surprisingly, my father played along with the idea of his five-year-old son being a convincing Santa Claus, but then mentioned a few logistical challenges.
‘This is Africa, my child,’ he said. ‘Here it only snows on Kilimanjaro and in the Lesotho Mountains. And as for reindeer …’
‘What about Prince?’ I asked. Prince was my Shetland Pony, who’s only job was to look dandy, and was impossible to ride.
My dad’s face lit up. ‘Then we’ll build a cart,’ he said, and rubbed his hands together, like he was ready for a barbeque.
The next morning I found him in his workshop, grinding and welding away, the smell of burnt metal and wet paint in the air. He salvaged two wheels from the rusty carcass of an old motorbike, and fitted them to an axis. Then he built a seat out of wood, just big enough for my scrawny bum, and painted it pine green. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There it stood. My own horse cart! He brought his milkshake green bakkie around, and said, ‘Hop in. What is Father Christmas without a bell?’ and off we went to the brass ware shop in town, twenty kilometres away.
Tingelingeling– I tried one shaped like a flute. Dongelongelong – I shook one in the shape of a lady in a bonnet. I then lifted it to see her legs dangle under her hooped dress. I blushed and put her down. Then I saw one with a long stem, in a classic bell shape. De-dong-de-dong-de-dong – I rang it. Its sound was round and full. I waved at my dad, who was leaning with his elbow against the counter, catching up with the shop owner.
‘So, have you made up your mind?’
‘This one,’ I said.
My plans to be Santa never materialised, but the thought of going down that dirt road on my cart at full speed, with Prince galloping gallantly in front of me in his harness, while I was ringing my bell, is all I need right now to know that I was loved.
Philip de Villiers
Copyright Wil Roach & Philip de Villiers. Photography Wiki Commons and Ferdinando Manzo.