There’s nothing overly complex or clever about this poem. Put simply, I wrote it after conducting a Christmas quiz with one of my last classes of the term just gone. It just struck me as such an excellent scene in the classroom – loud, tense, excited, never still. A bunch of children working together in teams and despite the fact that some of them would rather appear anything but excited, the element of competition is absolutely impossible to ignore!
So while acting as the showbiz style quiz master, I realised that this was an atmosphere that was too good to miss out on; so I wrote some notes and then sat down later and threw them together as something a bit more poetic. And here’s the result.
Catching them unawares is the really fun part. In fact, you could argue it’s downhill all the way after that.
As the quiz is announced the air crackles with a tangible excitement that is momentarily pierced by the feigned boredom of the cool kids. It won’t be long though, before they’re animated in glorious technicolour, shouting out, competitive as Olympians and quietly singing the words to Christmas carols in the missing words round.
With each question the tension builds and instead of ‘Lords ‘a leaping’ we have boys ‘a bouncing, girls ‘a screeching in teams competing and by question ten the chatter has become a rabble, has become a riot and we can no longer truly claim that all we have is a quiz.
This, in fact may well be a matter of life and death.
By the end of the quiz we’ve seen and heard it all. The careless calling out of what is very definitely the ‘right’ answer with a wink, the throwing up of arms, the almost audible straining of brains as the tip of the tongue is explored for an answer.
This is the chaos of the circus, the madness of rush hour and the irregular noise of the orchestra warming up all mixed together in the same bowl. This is the Christmas quiz.
If, like me you’re a teacher or you work in some capacity in a school, you’ll no doubt identify with the chaos of the Christmas quiz. If you’re not, then imagine a child’s birthday party, but with questions. The two will have much in common.
With the poem I wanted to capture the chaos and the noise, but also the subtleties – things like boys (and it’s always boys) pretending they’ve called out their right answer just a little too loudly in order to convince a rival team to write it down and thus lose a point. Sat at the front of the class with a blank sheet of A3 paper, I was able to note all of these things down; the attempts to cheat, the confidence even when it’s very clear that you’ve got completely the wrong answer and the looks of concentration on faces when kids search for an answer that they know, but haven’t the slightest hope of committing to paper!
The Christmas quiz has that element of fun that something like a revision quiz doesn’t have, but it still retains the desperate will to win in all who compete. And for that matter, despite the irritation of the rules being completely ignored within seconds, as the excitement kicks in, and all Hell breaking loose by about question three, it’s a whole load of fun. It definitely merits having a poem written about it…maybe not in your book, but very much in mine! I hope you like it and I hope, with some of my younger readers, it’s inspiration enough to join the teaching profession!
I’m going to start this post by addressing a little gripe of mine. It’s about my reputation. Or at least the reputation that I feel like I’ve picked up over the years. It seems that some people – colleagues, students, even some friends and family (even my wife) – regard me as a little bit grumpy. And when I say a little bit, I just mean grumpy. Very grumpy.
Personally, I don’t think I deserve my reputation. I’m not grumpy. Not anymore than anyone else I would imagine. I’m not relentlessly happy either, but I certainly wouldn’t refer to myself as grumpy. In fact, the fact that people refer to me as grumpy simply makes me feel…well…grumpy.
I think my problem is that I’m more of a realist than some would like. Maybe even too honest, when honesty is not what people are looking for. So if someone asks how I am, while most of the time I’m happy to toe the line and tell them I’m good, there may well be other times when I’ll tell them that actually I’m really tired, or that I’m sick of work, or that I just can’t be bothered to be doing what’s asked of me – I’ll always do it though. Similarly, as a coach or at work, if something needs to be pointed out to a kid as a bit of a target I’m not afraid to let them know.
I don’t believe in relentless positivity for relentless positivity’s sake. and I don’t walk around whistling show tunes or constantly grinning. But that doesn’t make me grumpy.
I’m writing this blog the night before our last day at work before the end of term break for Christmas. Tomorrow will be Christmas jumper day, so at this point I should add that my Christmas jumper features a huge picture of The Grinch on the front. Consequently, and no doubt also because people have just got the wrong impression, it has been known for a few people to actually refer to me as The Grinch. And yes, when they joke about it and point to the image on the front, I don’t laugh. It’s not a lack of a sense of humour and it’s not being grumpy; it’s just that stating the blindingly obvious isn’t very funny. In actual fact, the joke is on those who make the joke.
So then, now we’ve shattered the illusion, it’s time to let you know why this Grinch loves Christmas. Some of the reasons are predictable and obvious and others aren’t, but here we go.
Christmas films. (Or Christmas movies if your grasp of English isn’t that great or your American) Not exactly a revelation this one, eh? I mean lots of people love Christmas films., so maybe I’m stating the obvious here. Christmas films are truly special though. You only watch them at Christmas, unless you’re trying to gain a reputation as a bit of a ‘character’ and they’re about the kind of stuff that we’re all doing anyway (apart from Home Alone and Die Hard – although I’ll put it on the record right here and now that the only time I run riot in a white vest is at Christmas), but still surely everybody gets at least a bit of a warm glow when watching them. Some of them aren’t even that good, yet we’ll sit through them and maybe even get a little teary-eyed at what’s unfolding in front of us. The Polar Express is a prime example here. I have to admit that while we watch it every Christmas Eve and it’s an obviously lovely film, there are periods of that film where I’ve just lost track and it’s just dragging. It genuinely feels like a 7 hour film. But if I’m cuddled up with one of my children, maybe sipping on a hot chocolate and watching some feel-good Christmas film (it might even be The Grinch, just for the sake of irony), I’m relaxed and I’m very, very happy.
Decorated Houses. Now, to be clear, I’m not one those people who has every inch of the house covered in lights and twelve foot tall Christmas figures stood in the front garden. However, there’s definitely something about houses in the street or those around us being lit up that will make me feel a lot more festive. It’s genuinely astonishing the amount of effort that some people go to and I for one appreciate it greatly. Over the past few years, largely driven by my wife, we’ve gradually built up the lights and decorations around our house. We have lights in the tree in our front garden, others in some of the shrubs and we have light up candy canes bordering the drive. Or at least we did have light up candy canes until the whole unit dropped from the box as I was putting them out this year and broke. So now we just have candy canes. They still look great though. On top of this we also have a new addition; a projector on the front lawn that casts festive images on to the front of our house. Tacky? I’m not sure, but as I park the car on the drive after a long day at work and see it all in full flow it’s a sight that gladdens my heart. And it’s another reason to believe that perhaps I’m not the Grinch after all.
Squinting at the Christmas tree. Yep, you read that right. It might seem a bit weird, but it’s something I always do and it always makes me feel happy. There’s no great explanation here. When it’s night time and we have the Christmas tree lit up, I like to stare at the lights and find that if I squint a bit it makes them appear a bit bigger and brighter. I just think it’s a lovely sight. Just me? I expect so, but if you’ve never tried it then give it a go. And if you don’t like it then maybe it’s you who’s the Grinch!
Giving Gifts. Firstly, let’s get this out of the way. I absolutely love getting presents. Me and my wife still spoil each other rotten at Christmas and I still find it very exciting seeing what I’ve been bought. That might seem a little bit immature, but personally I think it’s just very normal. Surely we all like opening presents? I genuinely prefer giving though and it feels like I always go over the top. We’re lucky enough to be able to treat our children well at Christmas and it’s always a lovely feeling watching them open their presents. I still get a lot of pleasure out of shopping for my wife though. We have a budget, but I think we both overspend anyway! I like planning what I’m going to buy and trying to come up with things that my wife wouldn’t suspect she’s going to get and I feel like after all of the years we’ve been together. more often than not, I get it at least reasonably right! I still, as any bloke should, make sure that I ask for gift receipts though!
Family. Again, nothing too startling here. Christmas is well known as a time for family and like lots of people, I enjoy getting together with mine. I’d include friends in that as well. I’ve lived away from my home city of Newcastle since I was 23 – so a long time! I love going home though. Every Christmas we visit family and friends and it’s always fantastic. It’s nice sitting in my parents house and just chatting and it’s lovely being treat like a bit of a kid again! We usually go out for a family meal and it’s brilliant seeing my kids with their grandparents as it’s something that doesn’t happen that often. We also always visit our oldest friends in their home and again, it’s lovely just to sit and chat (we usually do a lot of festive moaning about our families and children, but that’s besides the point) and always a bit of a tragedy when you realise how late it’s got and that it’s time to head back down the motorway to home. In fact, it’s almost the final sign that Christmas has come to an end and who wants that?
The Annual Trip to The Panto! Now pantomime is a particularly British tradition, so it might need a bit of explaining. Panto (or pantomime to give it its full title) is best described as a play, but with more songs, farce and general silliness! It’s an occasion for the whole family and they are always hugely popular. They often involve celebrities playing handsome princes or beautiful princesses who have got themselves into a bit of trouble. There’s always a bad guy or two, but with a bit of singing, dancing and audience participation, everything gets resolved and often the handsome prince and princess live happily ever after together. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a recipe for a brilliant festive night out. We’re lucky here i Yorkshire as we have one of the best pantos in Britain at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford and for the last six or seven years we’ve gone along on the first Saturday of the Christmas holidays to watch the evening show. Over the years we’ve watched a Nolan sister, one of Steps, Christopher Biggins, Gareth Gates, a Chuckle Brother and Simon Webb of boyband Blue fame; all throwing themselves into a bit of panto fun. But they all take second place to the true star of the show, the legend that is Billy Pearce who always gets the audience shouting and singing along as well as laughing uproariously with some of the daftest jokes you’re ever likely to hear. It’s always a brilliant evening – I even enjoyed the one where I spent most of the evening in the foyer with my son who was sick all over my shoes and had to leave the auditorium in a bit of a hurry! Still, even the actual Grinch would love the panto.
The Last Day of Christmas Term. As a teacher, I love the last day of any term, but the last one before Christmas always feels particularly special. It’s generally just a hugely relaxed atmosphere and there is little if any teaching attempted, with watching Christmas films being more the order of the day. It really feels like everyone is happy and with staff in Christmas jumpers and snacks galore to go around, it’s always a fantastically enjoyable day.
So there you have it. Although I might well have a reputation for being a tiny bit Grinchy, I still very much love Christmas and I’d love to hear what everyone else’s favourite parts of the most wonderful time of the year are, so let me know in the comments!
So Christmas has been and gone, over for another year and ‘all that fuss for just a day’ as my mother used to – and probably still does – say. If you’re like us that would mean months spent planning, reviewing, buying, wrapping and then placing ‘just so’ around the front room, or if you’re very traditional, underneath the tree. The Christmas one that is, not the silver birch in the back garden. Christmas is stressful enough for all without turning it into some kind of treasure hunt. But it’s been a few weeks now and so we’ve all had ample time to recover, right? Well that depends on how you do Christmas, I suppose.
In our house this Christmas has been fairly monumental. I say fairly because there’s no telling whether next year will be just the same or in fact completely different. So already I’m thinking about next Christmas and as a result I don’t feel like I’ve adequately recovered from the one that’s just gone. The problem? The question of Santa.
We’ve brought our kids up to very much believe in Santa which has meant an enormous amount of lies and subterfuge. But, as they say in Hot Fuzz it’s all been for ‘the greater good’. Santa’s been a magical presence in all our lives, because of course, Santa is magical. As disturbingly perverse as a white-haired, well upholstered old man sporting a great big white beard and wearing a red velvet suit might be, we’ve all grown up to be touched by him, in the right way. And if you haven’t, then this probably isn’t the article for you. And if you’ve grown up with Santa and he’s touched you in the wrong way, well this isn’t going to help either.
Think about it. He lives at the North Pole. He’s in charge of a veritable army of elves. He’s quite the snappy dresser. He only works one night a year. He organises an enormous fleet of Coke trucks. He delivers presents to children all over the world, having watched them all year, placed them on a list and then assessed whether or not they’re worthy of his gifts. He flies around the world on a sleigh that is pulled by flying reindeer. One of his reindeer may or may not have ‘a very shiny nose’ which is also red. He gains entry to your house via the chimney, whether you’ve got one or not. And depending on where you’re from on the planet he has different names including Kris Kringle, Kerstman, Joulupukki, Black Peter and Babbo Natale. Now if that’s not a magical man, then I don’t know what is.
And now, we’re faced with the question of whether or not he’s actually real. I know. Ridiculous right? But in all seriousness, this is something that will hang over our family – and countless others all over the world – for the next year. My kids have reached the ages where they’re going to be exposed to the ugly truth. A truth so ugly that I find it difficult to speak it here. Suffice to say that they’ll come to their own conclusion about Santa.
My children are now 12 and 9. By the time Santa’s sleigh is being MOT’d in readiness for the next night of Christmas madness they will be 13 and 10. In short, it’s likely that either one or both will simply not believe any longer. The signs are already there. My daughter, the eldest actually found out ‘the truth’ a couple of years ago, but with a lot of guidance from us has retained at least some element of belief. She was angry at the time, threatening to tell her brother and declaring that she couldn’t believe we’d lied to her for all those years! That viewpoint was quickly talked out of her – it’s amazing how a cocksure side to someone can disappear when you threaten the existence of their Christmas presents!
I’m sure she’s in possession of the facts though as she’s now in Year 8 of high school, but it’s safe to say that there’s still a little bit of her that clearly believes, or at least doesn’t want to stop believing. This year she wrote a Santa list and she’s never explicitly told me that she doesn’t believe, which is all this dad really needs to know to convince himself of her continued innocence. But deep down, with my rarely seen sensible head on, I know she knows. I teach kids of her age and they’re simply not as innocent as you’d like them still to be.
My son, on the other hand, still seems to believe. He understands that the Santas in the shops aren’t real, but thanks to Christmas films such as Polar Express and Elf and a certain level of innocence that he’s always had, he still buys the whole Santa thing. But it’s definitely on the wane. This year, he mentioned to my wife that some Year 6 boys at school had been telling people that Santa wasn’t real. And he actually asked whether the Tooth fairy was made up. As a result it’s made me think that Christmas 2018 may have been the last of a certain kind. The last of the magical kind. And it breaks my heart to think of my children not believing any more.
So what do we do if and when Santa no longer exists? I’m kind of stumped. As I say, with my daughter it’s been a strange kind of transition and I can’t honestly say whether she still believes or not. She probably doesn’t, but she’s the pragmatic type who seemed more angry that we’d lied to her than about the loss of a cuddly white-haired old man who she’d never actually met. But I fear it will be a different story with my son, who is much more emotional and clearly more the type to believe totally in a cuddly old gentleman, however. The lead up to next Christmas could well be messy.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I’m adult enough – despite my age – to break the news. Or to deal with the question of Santa’s real identity. I mean, imagine the poor boy’s disappointment when he’s exposed to the shocking truth – no reindeer, no magic chimney, no sleigh and certainly no portly old man bedecked in red. And then the further disappointment of the fact that it has been me and his mam buying everything, hiding everything and wrapping everything, all along. It’s a lot to take in. The truth is about as far from fiction as you could hope for!
Our kids’ Christmas has always been a huge deal. The precision planning means that December has been a nightmare for years and that every Christmas Eve has been frantic and exhausting. Coupled with their belief that if it’s on Santa’s list that they can have it, it can make for a stressful time.
We’re both the product of traditional working class families, so the idea of budgeting for our kids has been high on our list. Every year we set a budget, but every year we try to spoil our children. It’s a tricky balance. For me in particular, although I loved Christmas as a child, it was often a bit of a disappointing time. My parents have often since admitted to the fact that there wasn’t enough money to give me and my sister what we wanted, however modest our lists might have been. And so, for a lot of Christmases I’d be willing Santa to bring me the things I’d put on my list, only to find that it wasn’t there on Christmas morning. Don’t get me wrong, I never let this disappointment show, but it was disappointment all the same and it’s certainly spurred me on in terms of the kind of Christmas I want my own kids to have. Within a budget, of course!
The point with the budget and the balance is that we end up doing a lot of online research – comparing prices, reviewing etc – in order to maximise what our kids get for their ‘money’. And when I say lots I mean months’ worth. Modern day shopping means that, as a parent, you have options. Amazon prices and Black Friday/Cyber Monday are there to be exploited as well as the many and varied sales that seem to crop up every other week. And, mainly due to my wife, we exploit them all!
Then there’s the twin terrors of hiding and wrapping presents, both of which end with you having to retrieve said presents from their hiding place on Christmas Eve! And all in the name of Santa Claus and the magical Christmas he brings! Presents have been bought and stashed in the boot of our cars for ages before being furtively moved into the house under the cover of darkness. Our loft has been crammed with stuff, but for some reason I’ve never been able to keep it all together, leading to many a frantic Christmas Eve spent scrambling about up there trying to track down one or two final elusive gifts for Santa to lay out. And then there’s the downstairs bathroom. For years my children seemed to just think this was a door that led nowhere, mainly due to the fact that it was always full of things being stored for another time and was thus out-of-bounds; from Autumn onwards these things would be Christmas presents. Needless to say, it was a revelation when I cleared the place out earlier this year and they realised that there was an actual toilet in there!
It’s a well-known fact that Santa’s elves wrap presents with precision following their many years of training in order to hone this skill. Now in my wife’s eyes, this has meant that in order to make the whole Santa experience as genuine as possible, our wrapping must be perfect! And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much rules me out. I am not a neat wrapper, meaning I’m solely responsible for the presents that the kids receive knowingly from us, but not Santa!
Wrapping also can’t be done in front of the children or within their earshot. So again, in the name of Santa, for years December evenings have been spent quietly and frantically wrapping after both children have gone to bed and have had enough time to be safely asleep! And always in the same paper so that our kids would never be able to suspect that it was us (the wife’s idea)! And then when it’s wrapped and brought out of its hiding place there’s the job of setting it all out just like Santa would’ve – we all do that, right?
So having written those last few paragraphs I can see that one of the things I’ll definitely do when Santa doesn’t exist is to do less! What has become a matter of routine that has grown and grown with each passing year actually seems like some kind of bizarre obsession when you read it back! But everyone will have their own ways and routines over Christmas and this simply multiplies if you’ve got children of a certain age. Even leaving things out for Santa can become something to think about. Do you just leave the whisky or milk and cookies out in a specific place? Do you have a special plate and cup? Do you leave something for Rudolph? Do you trail crumbs around to look like he ate and left in a hurry? Are you one of the people who leaves fake snow footprints as evidence that Santa’s been? The devil is in the detail and it’s the detail that adds to the magic of Christmas. Admit it, you’ll miss their faces full of wonder when they notice the crumbs or the half-eaten carrot? I know I will.
For all the work, planning, reading, wrapping and hiding that we do as parents, there will always be at least a moment that makes it all worth while. This year, at the sight of a carefully wrapped bike propped up on our settee, my son let out a series of squeals and ‘yeses’, punching the air and stamping repeatedly in unison. Genuine happiness that genuinely touched my heart. Similarly, my 12 year-old-too-cool-for-school daughter reacted with uncharacteristic glee when unwrapping small gifts like make-up and again my heart swelled just a little bit.
It feels fairly certain that next Christmas will be at least a little different in our house. Santa may well become just a decoration – a clockwork man who sits on the hearth and used to dance until my son’s curiosity got the better of him as a toddler. A bauble – of sorts – on the tree or a light up decoration stuck to the window. I’ll miss the strange reality of Santa and the hope he brings, but I hope it doesn’t make anyone sad. I’d like to think that rather than being entirely spoiled, without him Christmas will just be a bit different, but ultimately still Christmas and as the song says, ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ Still exciting, still fun, still a time for excess – in moderation of course – but different.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Now, how many days is it until Christmas?