Christmas Day morning, when I was little, was always exciting. The night before, we five boys would struggle to go to sleep because of excitement. Each of us had an empty pillowcase with our name on, at the bottom of our bed. We were told Father Christmas would come down the chimney as we slept and put toys and goodies in the sacks.
Our old house, in Manchester, did actually have a very small cast iron fireplace in our bedroom. I couldn’t see how even a small boy like me could get up or down that narrow chimney, let alone some overweight adult in a red fur coat. But, as long as the toys arrived, who cared?
You could be pretty sure of several things that would be in the Christmas sack the following morning. First, there would be the main present – the one we chose from the Littlewoods Catalogue a month before. There would likely be a few smaller toys you had identified to Mum at the local toyshop. Then there would be a Beano Annual and a Cadbury’s Selection box. And finally, right at the bottom of the sack would be an apple and an orange.
I never understood why the apple and the orange were put there. We had fruit most of the time at our house. At Christmas time the fruit bowl was extra full. On investigation, it seemed my parents had received an apple and orange from Santa, when they were children, and so they repeated the tradition.
My Mum and Dad grew up during the Second World War. My Dad never talked about it. My Mum didn’t either, except to say she hated it when she was evacuated from Manchester as a child.
If ever we boys complained of there not being enough of anything, my Dad would always laugh and say ‘There’s a war on, you know!’
Fifty years later, as I look back, my parents are long gone. But now I begin to understand why we got an apple and an orange for Christmas. If you grew up during the war, Christmas was subject to government rationing. Fruit was a scarce luxury. Life was necessarily lived frugally.
My parents didn’t talk about the war but perhaps the apple and orange tradition speaks volumes. It speaks of a couple who were glad rationing and war were over. Thankful for the small, simple pleasures in life, like fresh fruit and family gatherings.
These days if you expect an apple and orange for Christmas, it has more to do with an iPad connected to the Orange 3G network. And often, we are less satisfied and less grateful.
These days Christmas seems to be about spending money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.
I have just published a book called Searching for Home – a journey of the soul. In it I wander back through my childhood, searching for meaning, and to visit those places where Christ may be encountered – the manger, the wilderness, the secret altars he has placed in this world. To reflect on the meaning of our lives. To escape consumerism and to discover the simplicity our soul was designed for.
This Christmas, I am looking to be thankful for the little things, the simple things, like friendships, fruit, and laughter.