The Ghana Christmas ball was the first Christmas present I remember receiving
I have not celebrated Christmas in the UK since 1983. I still get asked from time to time what Christmas is like in England. (It happened again just recently.) But after all this time how can I be sure what goes on nowadays? And how much do I really remember?
Still, I have a stock answer. I say: “Christmas is too many people, in too small a space, for too long. It’s stress, booze and at least one blazing argument.” Which sometimes gets a laugh or a smile. Less now than it used to – my delivery is slipping. (Or too many have heard it already.)
Still my stock answer felt true once upon a time, and it’s certainly the root reason why I’ve not been “home” for Christmas for 32 years.
And yet. Thinking back now I wonder if that description – if it was ever true – wasn’t true for just a few years. For just a few Christmases. When I was in my teens. Perhaps in the run up to the separation and through my parents’ protracted divorce proceedings?
Trying to remember the Christmases of my childhood, I can’t actually bring to mind anything that corresponds to my stock answer.
The first Christmas I remember was in Ghana when I was six. I don’t feel that the concept was new to me. I must have then had memories of earlier Christmases. But now, looking back, this is the earliest I can recall.
We celebrated Christmas, my Mum and Dad, my sister and I, at the expats’ club. My engineer father was dressed as Father Christmas in a hooded coat and and a large false beard. Sweating like a pig (to use his own expression) he handed out presents to all the children. Although I’d been told it was Dad in the red hood and white whiskers, I wasn’t entirely convinced. He was giving a very jolly performance and seemed to be enjoying himself in the surging sea of reaching kids. Could this really be my father?
I look back now and see my six-year-old self on the edge of the crowd looking on with suspicion. I can’t escape the probability that I’m imposing a later perception of my father and our relationship on the scene, but the true memory I have remains. Father Christmas, large, red and white, seen over the heads and arms of the kids. Up close, I guess, I would have seen his eyes at least and smelled his smell (Old Spice covering sweat, cigarette smoke, whisky), but I have no memory of that.
The Christmas ball
I do remember my present was a brown football that I was only moderately pleased to get. I suppose that I’d wished for something else, though I can’t remember what.
The football may have been Dad’s choice, but my adult self doubts it. I imagine a job lot of toys, wrapped by the mothers and put in the sack for Father Christmas to pull out. Nothing with a specific child’s name on it. In this scenario, my getting the ball would be chance.
That seems harsh, now I think about it. In fact Dad might have chosen the ball for me in advance, if the opportunity presented itself at a moment when he was feeling generous. He might even, at the moment of picking gifts from the sack in Santa Clause mode, have recognised the ball for what it was in its wrapping paper disguise and taken it to give me. After all, a ball would have been the sort of gift he might choose.
I wonder now if my six-year-old self was already wary of ball games. I was certainly wary of them later on. I’m like my father physically in many ways. I’ve inherited his build, his walk, his hands and his hairline, but one thing he didn’t pass on was his ball sense. Dad was a natural ball player. Football, cricket, tennis, golf – you name the ball game, he could play it. But probably because all ball games came so naturally to him, he was also hopeless at teaching others – me – how to play. He tried a little to begin with, but he failed. Catch was about the limit of what I was capable of, and even then I fumbled the ball more often than not. I was both a disappointment to him and a puzzle. How was it possible that a son of his had such poor ball sense?
My abiding memory of the Ghana Christmas ball is its colour. Brown. Like one of the hens that scratched in the dust around the homes of the African houseboys. I’m not sure when the ball went missing, but it was soon after we got home from the club that Christmas Day.
The children’s party was in the afternoon. The club house was decorated with strings of coloured Christmas tree lights and the shutters and curtains were closed against the sun, but I remember how bright the day was when we came outside. I guess there was to be an adult party there in the evening, but our parents took us home for supper and bed.
I may have played with the ball in the garden in the early evening after we got home. At some point, I lost it. Kicked it out of sight, looked for it, failed to find it, just as Mum called me in to supper. Did I worry about losing it and decide not to tell anyone?
Later, as the light was failing, I stood on the veranda and looked down into the shrubbery. I saw what I thought was the ball, but I was in my pyjamas and now getting called to bed.
The following morning the ball wasn’t where I thought I’d seen it and I wondered if, in fact, what I’d seen was one of the hens. Or if one of the African kids on the street had found the ball and taken it.
I don’t remember any repercussions for having lost the ball. This supports my belief that Dad never chose it for me himself. If it had been a present he had particularly picked out he would – surely – have been cross with me. And I – surely – would have remembered.
And that’s it – the first Christmas I remember. Me looking from the sidelines, an unwanted gift, a loss, an uncertainty. But no fighting and no recriminations.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.
I originally published this article on the separate Stops and Stories website. Transferred here with a little polishing for SEO and a new featured image 9 November 2017.