Wish I Was At Home For Christmas


Just how long has this lament been uttered by soldiers, sailors, students and expats of all stripes at this time of year?  By Jove, that’s an interesting question.

For over three centuries Easter was Christendom’s foremost holiday. Since there is no mention of Jesus’ birth date in the Bible, Christmas was an abstract notion until 350 AD when Pope Julius I decreed that a Feast of the Nativity be celebrated on December 25th.

It was a well-considered choice in an age when Christianity was not yet the official religion of Rome.  Observing Christmas on the Winter Solstice – which fell on the 25th under the Roman calendar – enabled the Church to convert legions of pagans with the assurance that, as Christians, they could still celebrate the ancient festival of Saturnalia.

Commencing with a human sacrifice before the Temple of Saturn, and then carrying on for a number of days, Saturnalia was beset with overeating, intoxication, gambling, nakedness (especially while singing  in the street), flagrant sexual indulgence, and – one mustn’t forget – gift giving, all of which ended on the 25th with the pagan rite of Natis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Sun God) that promised the return of daylight in the months ahead.

As Christianity supplanted paganism throughout Western Europe, the vestiges of this not-so-pious celebration tagged along (minus the human sacrifice and with Baby Jesus far outshining the Sun God) while adopting other pagan customs along the way.

Yule, for example, had long been celebrated in Scandinavia. For the great 12-day Solstice feast enormous Yule logs were burned and having festooned their homes with holly, ivy, and other evergreens in the spirit of rejuvenation, revelers feasted, sang, and danced in praise of light and life.

Christmas reached England in the 6th Century and by the reign of Henry VIII the holiday had become quite the Yuletide extravaganza with lavish pageants and sporting events, feasting and dancing, and the customary debauchery that squares so nicely with a Midnight Mass.

This midwinter bacchanal was merrily upheld by Henry’s Tudor and Stuart successors into the 17th Century until  – sigh, no party lasts forever – the rise of the Puritans and Lord Protector Cromwell, who forbade all religious festivals especially Christmas with its gluttony, drunkenness, promiscuity … and lewd caroling. Such distain was shared by the Pilgrims of New England, who demonstrated their contempt for the New World’s first Christmas (and those that followed) by treating it like any other working day.

Although it was modestly observed in the Southern Colonies, Christmas was out-and-out outlawed in Boston as it had been in England and Scotland. “The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that month,” wrote the Reverend Increase Mather, “but because the heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”

Fortunately (for all those Whos in Whoville) Christmas did return, albeit as a ghost of its former self (goodbye gambling, drunkenness, promiscuity, and lewd caroling). It returned to England (but not for a long while to Scotland) after the coronation of Charles II. And with the advent of the Enlightenment, Christmas muddled along in the Colonies, where there was little agreement as to whether it should be seen as sacred, secular, or simply sacrilegious.

It wasn’t until after the American Revolution, when New Yorkers expressed an interest in the city’s non-English past, that Washington Irving began to make his indelible impact on the season. Published in 1809, his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, included a story about the Dutch Sinterklaas, aka St. Nicholas, who smoked a pipe and rode in a wagon over the tree tops to place gifts in the stockings that children had hung by the chimney.

Years later his friend, Clement Clarke Moore would further define the modern image of Santa Clause (and Father Christmas) by turning the wagon into a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer in his iconic poem that began with the lines“Twas the night before Christmas…” Yet by the time Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen had become household names with the publication of Moore’s poem in 1822, Irving had been instrumental once again in helping to shape the holiday as we know it.

While living in England he serially published his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819/20), which in addition to Rip Van Winkle and  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, featured tales of near-forgotten English holiday traditions such as the charitable ushering of the poor into the homes of the wealthy for dinner with all the trappings, and the essential ground rules regarding mistletoe.

“The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas,” he wrote, “and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.”

Back home, Washington Irving’s countrymen delighted in his seasonal stories of hearth, home and humanity; as did another friend of his, Charles Dickens, who in 1843 hugely inspired his Victorian readership by capturing the spirit of goodwill, family gatherings, and festive generosity with A Christmas Carol.  And then there was the greatest doyen of Christmas Future, Queen Victoria herself.

The holiday may have endured a long fugue state in Britain and America but with its lovely caroles (carols), plätzchen (Christmas cookies), hexenhauses (gingerbread houses), glühwein (mulled wine), christstollen (fruitcake), and especially with its tannenbaums (Christmas trees), Christmas in der Fatherland had always remained clean and bright.

With a German mother (Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz), Victoria fondly remembered  childhood Christmases spent with her family opening presents around a beautifully ornamented tree; a tradition that was expanded upon by her beloved German husband, Prince Albert, who encouraged his family to decorate the tree themselves.

However, not until The Illustrated News (1848) published a rendering of the Royal Family with their Christmas tree in Windsor Castle, did many of her subjects even consider such a thing (a tree inside your home?).  Once they did, most clamored to get one too, as did many  of their fashion-conscious American cousins.

By the time Christmas became a recognized U.S. federal holiday in 1870, the jovial celebration with presents around the tree and a festive meal with turkey, goose, or ham followed by mince pie and plum pudding, was well on its way to becoming an All-American tradition.

Meanwhile across the waves, Christmas had become firmly re-established as Britannia’s most beloved holiday. Realizing this, Victoria – who felt great sympathy for those who fought for Queen and Country in the far reaches of her empire – began to send ornate tin boxes of chocolates as a present from their grateful sovereign. It was a practice that (even after her death) would be repeated on each Christmas day of the Great War (WWI).

Which finally brings us to this, Jona Lewie’s December 1980 song (peaking at Number 3 on the UK Singles charts) about the eternal plight of those who in this season of light, would rather be dancing in the arms of the ones they love…

Stop the Calvary

Hey, Mr. Churchill comes over here

To say we’re doing splendidly

But it’s very cold out here in the snow,

Marching to win from the enemy

Oh I say it’s tough, I have had enough

Can you stop the cavalry?

I have had to fight, almost every night

Down throughout these centuries

That is when I say, oh yes yet again

Can you stop the cavalry?

Mary Bradley waits at home

In the nuclear fall-out zone

Wish I could be dancing now

In the arms of the girl I love

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Wish I was at home for Christmas

Bang! That’s another bomb on another town

While Luzar and Jim have tea

If I get home, live to tell the tale

I’ll run for all presidencies

If I get elected I’ll stop, I will stop the cavalry

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Wish I was at home for Christmas

Wish I could be dancing now

In the arms of the girl I love

Mary Bradley waits at home

She has been waiting two years long

Wish I was at home for Christmas

You’re 25, there’s money in your pocket, and this is London


It’s 1984 on a Friday afternoon in Aberdeen, Scotland. After fourteen 12-hour shifts of offshore servitude you have two weeks to unleash the restless gene. Now with receipt of your paycheque your priorities are as simple as:

  1. Make a deposit and get some cash at the Barclays on Union Street,
  2. Slip into an off license for a bottle of whisky from one of this country’s 130 or so distilleries; one that you have yet to try,
  3. Secure a train ticket before joining your southbound crewmates in the railway bar and – “Here’s to the unwinnable race” – raising a glass to the station clock.

Departing at 2030 and stopping in Edinburgh, Newcastle (“So long Geordie lads!”), York, and Peterborough, British Rail’s Nightrider will be half-empty by the time it completes the ten-hour journey to London.

At £19 you can’t beat the inter-city fare, which is why the train is often packed on a Friday night with a mishmash of simpering geriatrics (bless them) and drunken ruffians. Occasionally this has included you, though your antics will never come close to the rugby players a few trips back who drank the bar car dry and rampaged through the carriage in the nude. A wild scene, they never made it beyond York.

Tonight you’re happy to stick to a few beers, unless the conversation turns philosophical and that whisky somehow maneuvers its way out of your duffle and around the compartment. In which case you’ll doze a bit after your lolling head thunks against the vibrating window.

And dozing is as good as it gets. At dawn the train pulls into King’s Cross Station and you take the Tube to South Kensington to catch a Number 45 bus, or a 49 if that appears first. Like most London busses, yours is a classic London Routemaster double-decker and at any other time you’d head straight upstairs to grab a front seat and observe the sceptered city from on high.

But with your work gear bulking out the duffle – along with some duty free perfume for your girlfriend and, hopefully, that bottle of single malt – you sprawl instead on an aisle-facing seat near the exit, trying to get comfortable as the bored conductor collects your fare and the “tick-tick-ticking” engine forever idles at the station. It’s early Saturday morning. You’re the only passenger. The world is in no hurry.

While the 49 trundles down the King’s Road past the Roebuck (where Johnny Rotten joined the Sex Pistols), the preferred 45 lumbers up Fulham Road by the ABC Cinema, which allows you to see what’s playing. Either bus will then cross over the Battersea Bridge and past a pub fittingly named the Prodigal’s Return. Nearly there, you grab the pole on the rear platform, lean out into the brisk air like Gene Kelly on a lamppost and – careful now – prepare to hop off when the bus brakes for a turn near the top of your street.

Home at last. Though you mean to spend this downtime profitably, to secure your future perhaps, that dopamine-deficient/ADHD tag team in your head, which won’t be diagnosed until some time in the next century, rarely recognizes such circumspection.

Instead it’s time to start the music – in this case the opening track to the Penguin Café Orchestra’s 1981 self-titled album – because nothing imparts the glorious, carefree sensation of going nowhere-and-everywhere while time rushes by like Air a Danser.

You’re 25. There’s money in your pocket, this is London and – oh what a mad existence – the world’s your oyster.

Canoodling with your sweetheart takes first priority of course, with the promise of evening strolls through the park and leisurely brunching over Sunday papers; and of experimentation in the kitchen after you re-acquaint yourself with the local butcher, baker, greengrocer, fishmonger, and deli man. Tonight there’s a party at Lesley’s. Tomorrow it’s tea at Trish and Michael’s. Nobody throws an afternoon tea like Trish.

There will be dinners with Heidi and Jürgen; maybe a fringe production with John and Jo; or a jazz performance in Brixton with Ann and Hans; and you’ve vowed to see that Cubist exhibit at the Victoria & Albert with Wendy and Lawrence.

Singly, there will be pints aplenty with Giles, a kindred spirit who once took an inebriated observation [“Why do you suppose lampposts have crossbars?”] and turned it into a two-man acrobatic act [“Not sure, but you know a chap’s not a chap until he hangs upside down by his knees from a crossbar. Shall we?”]

And Tony, who can adroitly hold fourth on topics ranging from folk music, to space travel, to the dynastic succession of China’s emperors, and whose cryptic ability to write backward was once featured on a national television programme;

And Terry who, in a rush to catch his train after last call at the Maple Leaf, gladly accepts a lift down the Mall on the handlebars of your bike while smoking a hand-rolled cigarette [“Oh look the Queen’s in. That’s her standard flying above the Palace. Hallo Ma’am.”]

One and all these are among the finest friends you’ll ever have. But they all have day jobs and your weekdays are free. So taking your cue from the copious listings in Time Out, and your 3-Speed Hercules Commuter (once a Metropolitan Police bike) from out of the shed, you live each day anew.

You see that Allen Ginsberg will be reciting a selection of William Blake poems while accompanying himself on squeezebox at Covent Garden. Can’t miss that. There’s a new Bergman film at the Chelsea Cinema, and – Boom! Crash! – the latest Spielberg blockbuster shown in 70mm Dolby Stereo at one of the massive Leicester Square movie houses.

Around and between your 14 offshore stints you’ll watch more than 60 films here in London, with evening extravaganzas like Abel Gance’s Napoleon (in triptych) at the Barbican Centre, and various screenings (such as the Brighton Film School 1895-1906) at the National Film Theatre and Institute of Contemporary Arts, along with retrospectives at the Ciné Lumière, Minema, and Gate Notting Hill, and late-night features at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road.

While every day begins as a reading and writing day, there’s often incentive to take in a matinee at one of the ABC/Classic/Cannon/Odeon cinemas around town. You’ve come to know them well, along with any notable public houses in their vicinity. Because there are few better ways to set the stage for viewing indulgence than a ploughman’s lunch and an (Imperial) pint of premium bitter in a venerated English pub.

Starting with your local, the Latchmere, and including such enduring haunts as the Lamb & Flag, the Grenadier, and the Windsor Castle on Campden Hill Road, you’ll visit upwards of 70 London pubs during your 18 months as a rig worker. Most of them named for some blood sport, distinguished Englishman, popular myth, heraldic badge, legendary countenance, celebrated fauna, time-honored vocation, religious symbol, exalted figure, historic event, found object, or whatever other folk rendering graces its signage.

But man cannot live by a ploughman’s and ale alone. Whether cockles and whelks at a stand in Cambridge Circus, or whitebait and roes-on-toast at Sweetings in the City, when you see seafood you like to partake. The same goes for Chinese takeaway – as at the superbly named Ho Lee Fook on King’s Road – and various dishes from the far reaches of the Empire, as those found at Eve’s Singapore Curry, Old Rangoon, The Last Days of the Raj, and especially at cavernous, cheap and bountiful Khan’s.

Relishing the restaurant reviews as readily as one might The Times Literary Supplement, you divine gastronomic themes, such as the “Cold War cuisine” enjoyed at Nikita’s (caviar and vodka), Luba’s (goulash and vodka), and Daquise (borscht, herring, and … vodka); and the “Franglais fare” found in London’s bistros (like Le Café du Jardin), patisseries (the Richoux chain), brasseries (the Dôme chain), and brassieres-that-serve-pizza (Kettner’s).

And though you occasionally resort to Anglicized takes on what you ate in college (Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, Café Pacifico) you firmly believe that the best way to experience a place and time is to dine like a local, especially if he or she happens to be among the London cabbies sitting down to a fry-up at Peter’s of Pimlico, or a serving of eels, pie, and mash at Harrington’s in Tooting.

By the arrival of a new weekend you’re truly steeped in the Englishness of it all, heading downriver for Thames Day at the Waterloo Bridge, or upriver for the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race with a side trip to Geale’s for the best fish and chips in town.

Now you’re off to Hyde Park for the sunrise start of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. And now you’re lazing in your local park – once part of Battersea Fields where the Duke of Wellington famously dueled the Earl of Winchilsea – for any number of cultural festivals (“Penny for the guy?”) within the shade of the iconic brick power station featured with a flying pig on the cover of that Pink Floyd album.

Here you’ve purchased return tickets from Paddington for a weekend in the Cotswolds. With rucksacks and bicycles stowed in the luggage car, your Ordinance Survey map is duly marked for a journey through the “Land of Counterpane” and its attendant farmhouse breakfasts, cream teas, and pub suppers.

And here you’ve purchased return tickets for the boat train from Victoria to Dieppe, for a long weekend in Rouen or Paris. Easily done when there’s a bank holiday and your girlfriend has Monday off.

Scotland too has its charms. You’ve wandered many of its city streets and, from the Kyle of Lochalsh, taken a bonnie boat to Skye. Just as you’ve rambled lonely in the Highlands and, in a leaky pup tent, camped across from Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness.

You did the same in Orkney but (tied to some lobster pots on Stromness Point) the old tent sadly succumbed to a deluge, vividly reminding you of the drudgery you’ve experienced – and will anew – beneath those Caledonian skies. No, you much prefer the Home Counties of England where life is good … ’til the music ends and your time ticks away.

It’s 1984.  Yours is a rotational shift. In the words of Orwell’s doomed protagonist, Winston Smith, “the end was contained in the beginning.”  And while the 2230 Nightrider – half-empty on a Thursday night – pulls out of King’s Cross bound for Aberdeen, you contemplate the near-dystopian days ahead.

But not for long. This spinning through time has its merits for one who can rarely keep still.  A world in a whirl can be your oyster again.