It is once again the time of year when Christmas parties and seasonal drinks gatherings that makes this time of year so special and Friday night at my wife’s Christmas party was no exception. As I watched her chatty and smiley with her work colleagues my mind was drawn back to the Christmas parties of years gone by.
My earliest Christmas parties were at my local primary school where the Christmas excitement would start to manifest in the shape of a wooden box full of small Christmassy shapes. Christmas trees, bells, icicles and snowflakes. These were the shapes that us kids would draw around as we started to make our own sheet of Christmas paper which our present from Santa was going to be wrapped in. The care taken with these sheets, which in a month would all create their own magic moment, was being done in amongst total silence and endeavour. Each child working in their own utter most creative elation in an atmosphere of spell bounding bliss. The excitement and magic of those feelings has never left me, for in those days, Christmas was the only time of year when you received a present. Birthdays never resulted in birthday parties or gifts.
The small Cotswold towns round about including Cirencester, Cheltenham and Oxford would organise their turning on of their Christmas lights and they would always be turned on by the biggest celebrity of Christmas, Santa Clause himself and to be honest, a tad of that Christmas magic has long been lost over the past twenty five years or so on the wheeling in of some random celebrity that no kid has ever heard of to kick off the season that means so much to most fun loving people. The end of a hard year, the time to reflect on the fortunes of your own family when you haven’t got to look very far in any direction to see someone much worse off than yourself. The time of year to be happy, to give and to receive in the gracious festive manner that only Christmas can bring out, and only Christmas can generate such good will and generosity that no other time of the year comes near in matching.
When the Christmas paper was completed it was gathered up by the teachers and put into the big ‘no go’ cupboard where each present for each child given by the school would then be wrapped in their own personalised Christmas paper. Next, the teachers would organise a Santa Clause and the one that seemed to be their favourite was Ben Hatchett, an old woodman who seemed to us kids to be absolutely ancient. His movement was slow, his speech was slow and he just looked very, very old, but having said all that, he was a great Santa Clause.
This particular year for whatever reason, the teachers had decided that it would be a great idea to enhance the Christmas experience by letting Ben breeze up to the school on an old pony and trap. The trap was to be decked out as near as possible to resemble a sleigh, and it just so happened that old Ben had a pony that looked even older than he did.
Ben loved horses and ponies. He was one of the last people in the Cotswolds to fell and then haul out the timber with Shire horses and he loved nothing better than showing us kids his old cross cut saws and his pulling chain and some of the old photographs of him working his horses pulling out what looked to be two to three ton trunks with teams of two and four horses struck me as the most unbelievable power demonstration that I had ever seen. For as far as Ben was concerned this was the real phrase and the real meaning of horse power.
I had been picked along with another kid Conrad, one of my school chums to be Santa’s helpers on the day of the Christmas party and our job was to go down and wait at the end of the lane to meet Santa Clause and then walk back up with him to the school where the teachers and all the kids were waiting to give him a rapturous welcome. The day of the party, which when we were making our Christmas paper seemed a lifetime away, eventually came and Conrad and I waited in our allotted place wearing our green and red costumes. While we waited the costumes had triggered off a roll play all of their own. I was Robin Hood and Conrad being a bit rounder was Little John. As we stood whacking each other’s stick we heard a clop, clop, clop. Reading this you are probably thinking it should have been a clip clop, clip clop, but this was most definitely a clop with no clip. We immediately stopped our roll play and threw aside our sticks just as Moses was turning into the lane. I had nicknamed the pony Moses because of what seemed to be him and Ben’s biblical age and the glacier pace they both seemed to move in. As they drew nearer, “Ho, ho, ho,” Santa cried as he came upon us.
“Merry Christmas Santa,” shouted Conrad and myself jumping up and down waving. Ben looked great as Santa Clause, the real deal.
He sat in his ‘sleigh’ with a big hessian sack behind him. We then lead the way back to school. The weather was cold but we were so full of the Christmas spirit we didn’t feel it. The pace towards school seemed so unbelievably slow. It was probably only four or five hundred yards but it seemed to be taking for ever. I remember trying to quicken my step as I walked alongside Moses thinking this would make him go faster. My impatience was almost uncontrollable. I had to slow right down again, Moses had no intentions of trying to keep up with my pace. Near enough was quick enough was the mood of the afternoon. As we drew nearer we could hear the sound of the cheering kids. “There’s Santa, come on Santa,” they called out. The pace was deathly slow. At the end of the lane there was a small pedestrian gate built into a three foot six Cotswold stone wall which opened into the school yard. We were still a good two hundred and fifty yards away from the thronging crowd of school kids. The chants were now changing to “Hurry up Allan, hurry up Conrad,” Were we the ones slowing Santa down? I looked at Moses’ flank which was nice and shiny and seemed to be crying out for a good slap to liven him up. The temptation was getting more and more unbearable, the rump of Moses seemed to be crying out ever more for a slap to spur him on his way. As we got nearer, listening to Conrad’s moans and groans, “Come on, come on” and Ben’s total oblivion to the sense of time. This was a fractious, anxious, excited and impatient situation and the school kids on the other side of the gate were now looking more like an unruly mob. The teachers efforts of trying to keep these rowdy children in line could now be clearly heard. I could fight the temptation no more. I raised my hand and I slapped the sluggish rump of Moses. This resulted in a sequence of events that has been talked about to this day. It was as if I had unleashed a pack of starving wolves down from The Tundra. Moses reared up on his hind legs and lurched forward with the acceleration of a Gazelle. Ben was thrown back off his seat into the hessian sack of presents. Within seconds Conrad and I was left in his wake. Soon Ben and the ‘sleigh’ were hurtling head long towards the school. Moses, I felt sure, still thought he was under attack from the Tundra wolves and he was heading straight for the pedestrian gate in the wall to the school yard. Conrad and I put our hands to our faces for you could see that Moses would be able to get through the gate but the ‘sleigh’ could not. Soon the sound of an almighty ‘whack’ could be heard as Moses’ aim was deliberate and true. He had made it through the gateway but the ‘sleigh’s’ steel rimmed wheels were now imbedded in the Cotswold stone wall, one each side of the gateway. Conrad and I were soon on the scene, Moses had been brought to his knees. Ben started to abuse me with every four letter word he could lay his tongue to plus a few more. The language was as colourful as the cheeks of the female primary school teachers listening to it.
The reprimand was ginormous. The lesson I learned was unquantifiable. Never try and rush great times for they are gone all too soon.
Moses made a full recovery, Ben’s bruising had faded by Easter and I was given my present along with the other kids and the Christmas was as great and as magical as any Christmas before or since. The exuberance of youth along with the fragility of life gave us a lesson that we would never forget.
Old Ben's favourite horse, The Shire.