This time of year, I like listening to the Salvation Army Band, which is possibly a surprising statement from a confirmed atheist. But I haven’t always been so. When I was a child, my parents belonged to the Salvation Army. I was sent to Sunday School, and taught to believe in God.
My earliest Christmas memories are from when my parents were still together. We lived in a little town in Lancashire, in a bungalow which had had the attic converted into another floor. My sister and I both had bedrooms in the attic rooms. My parents slept in the downstairs bedroom. On Christmas Eve, my sister and I put our pillow cases (no stockings for us – we had pillow cases) in our parents’ room. I once asked my mother why the pillow cases had to go in their room. She said she wanted to watch us open our presents. I never questioned this at the time – I still had an unshakeable belief in Santa Claus. I suppose I was a gullible child – I believed whatever anyone told me, because it never occurred to me they could be lying. So when all the grown-ups were telling me that Santa was real, I accepted this without question – after all, why would they be telling me this if it wasn’t true?
Anyway, Christmas morning my sister and I would gallop down the stairs and charge into our parents’ room to see what presents had been left for us. The excitement of seeing that pillow case stuffed with presents has been unmatched by any thrill in adult life.
My dad used to play trombone in the Salvation Army band, and in the run-up to Christmas we would go and watch him play in the shopping precinct, all bundled up in winter coats and mittens, which were attached by a piece of wool running down the arms of my coat and along the back, so I couldn’t lose one of them.
Whenever I watch the Salvation Army band play at Christmas time, I remember those early Christmases, when my parents were still together, and Christmas was all about new toys, singing carols, marzipan and Baby Jesus. And then I feel very sad, because life was simpler then and I can’t go back there.
It happens to us all, of course. We have to grow up, and when we do life gets more complicated. My parents divorced; both of them married new partners; we moved to Canada and I had to leave everything I was familiar with behind; I found out there was no Santa, and therefore no magic; I stopped believing in God; I started called Christmas ‘Xmas’ because I realised it had all become hugely commercialised and I no longer believed it had anything to do with the birth of Christ.
But music has the power to tap into our emotions on a very primal level, and I cry when I listen to the Salvation Army band because it takes me right back to the little girl I was, and can never be again.
Thinking about the subject of this post made me realise that the shine began to come off Christmas for me the year my parents divorced, and subsequent events tarnished it even further. I know, logically, it’s not possible for me – or for any of us – to go back to the innocence and simplicity of childhood. So I listen to the Salvation Army band when I hear it playing Christmas songs, and even though doing so always makes me cry, it still takes me back to a happier time and place.