Bringing back the Christmas of yesteryear

Last week was one of numerous inconveniences. I had hoped the steady stream of delivery companies buzzing my doorbell might reduce to a trickle. After all Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Purchaser’s Remorse Wednesday were ages ago, right?

Sadly I was wrong. Earlier in the week things reached a peak, or possible a nadir, when one of my elderly neighbours, who has been increasingly housebound after some falls, came to me in tears. I beckoned her in for a cup of tea and a piece of cake. I do this quite frequently now, as I realise that she is becoming ever more isolated and lonely. As we sat down over a cuppa (she always looks at me slightly strangely for my drinking from a mug rather than a cup and saucer), I asked her to explain what was wrong.

She’d been expecting a parcel, which her sister had told her would be arriving. My neighbour doesn’t have a mobile telephone so her sister calls her on her land-line to tell her when she receives the SMS about delivery being imminent. And of course my neighbour sits waiting for the doorbell to ring and the parcel chap to bring up her parcel. Only this time the doorbell doesn’t ring and there is a card for her that she wasn’t in when they tried. As was also the case for five parcels delivered to the house to my knowledge as she had asked others, the drivers hadn’t tried. Others were also in, and hadn’t had a ring at the door.

Yuletide happiness now seems to hinge on the dark art of actually getting a parcel delivery. The market forces seem to dictate that more packages must be “delivered”, and quicker. And the definition of “delivered” seems to now constitute left in a pile at a retail unit and hopefully you are notified promptly, rather than physically receiving your parcel and signing for it.

In an age where smartphone apps allow you to seamlessly track parcels from sender to recipient (or packet shop), part of the issue is the whole logistical chains involved in the process. And like the chain of a badly maintained bike, unless well oiled, the friction in every link of chain creates more possibilities for the process to fail. And of course the reliance on shopping online has accentuated the stress on the joints in the chain to breaking point.

I have been advocating a return to “bricks” and deserting of “clicks” for shopping, partly in order to try to regain the lost magic of Christmas. I’d like people to enjoy an amazing Christmas not an Amazon Christmas. A Christmas where people, human kindness and friendship comes ahead of artificial retail pressures. If religion’s your thing, you might like to buy back into the Christmas story. Irrespective of the religious aspect of it all, I’d like to turn the clocks back.

For a while when I first left home, although I use the term “home” advisedly, seeing as home was always the current parental posting until Dad left his military postings and enjoyed the relative permanence of a fixed abode, my now departed mother requested “our presence, not our presents”. For her, Christmas was about having us all under one roof, about my brother and me spending time with our kid sister. Of course we used to arrange it all well in advance, and we knew Mum would be happy with a cookbook or a simple present. Kid sister was happy with art supplies (I reckon she requested new brushes most years from the age of 11). Even now, she is happy with art supplies, as she tries to eke out a living from art.

Dad was happy with a bottle of wine or some fine pipe tobacco. Sometimes extended family, Aunts, cousins, grandparents and the like would also descend, and I remember one Christmas that my brother and I slept on camp beds in the sitting room in sleeping bags due to our rooms (well, the rooms we slept in when visiting) being commandeered by relatives.

There was always enough food, festive cheer, no-one seemed to racking up debt to buy presents (we bought within our means, or some who liked to be generous were careful about squirreling away a bit each week or month). Christmas was not funded by a credit card or on the never-never.

People didn’t want the latest smartphone for Christmas, or spend most of January and February on their beam ends recovering from the outlay of Christmas. Austria’s fourteenth salary, for those in jobs with a collective wage agreement, to a certain extent meant that Christmas was all pre-financed and paid for up front.

But I digress. Christmas has become rather overcomplicated. The relentless pressure of consumerism comes to a head, and each year I swear it gets worse. My neighbour showed me the card for the Paketshop at which her parcel was being stored. The parcel company’s whizz bang algorithm had doubtless said “closest place as the crow flies”. Unfortunately the ability of a crow to fly does not translate strictly into a human’s easy ability to reach the Paketshop. Yes in a straight line it is close, but if you are not good on a slope, it gets very difficult.

At my Stammtisch, I asked my friends whether they had a similar experience, and they had. Some, also retired have also been picking up parcels for neighbours, or become a parcel collection point in their building (a blessing or curse of multi-dwelling residential units).

Last year, amid the return of the prodigal son (this time last year nephew was returning from life on the ocean wave), I freely admit that it all got a bit too much for me. Consequently, my wife and I decided to systematically simplify the festive period, and revert to a fusion of the Christmases that we had enjoyed in the past. So here is my “cut out and keep” list of how to turn back the clock to have a good old-fashioned Christmas.

  1. Minimise the genuflection towards retail: we have said to our friends and family that all presents are to come from our local shopping street, Obkirchergasse. Granted that it has limited choice, but we managed to get all sorts of fine foods, wines, clothes, toiletries, kitchen goods, books, stationery, and even a handbag from this one little street. We also ordered items through local retailers, even insisting when one said we’d get it quicker and cheaper online elsewhere.
  2. Do Christmas within your means: as I went up and down Obkirchergasse, the closer it got to Christmas, the more stressed parents were looking about how to get everything their children wanted. They were weighed down by the shopping bags, but more burdened by the whole worry about would the present be exactly what their children wanted. I sat in Ströck with a friend, who was buying for grandchildren. We had bought what his daughter-in-law has requested but were doubting whether the toy would be played with even a fortnight into the new year. In the end, before he ended up going and buying more presents out of worry that one present was not enough, I sat him down and we worked out how much the wishlist was costing. Individually the items didn’t seem expensive, but the total was very large. In the end, I convinced my friend that one gift less from the list and the children would all be happy and he wouldn’t be quite so out-of-pocket, just for the sake of instant gratification.
  3. Banish loneliness: I am actively involved in ensuring that my elderly neighbours spend Christmas with their family. I do a dropping off and collection service for them to ensure that they still can do this. Three of them are dropped off at the Hauptbahnhof and escorted to their trains to other parts of the country, to be met at the other end by relatives. And the same for when they come back. Their Christmas holiday is a highlight of their year. Their relatives all play ball, and it definitely keeps them going with something to look forward to. Others come in for coffee and cake regularly, and we also ask what shopping they need.
  4. Presence not presents: spend time with others at Christmas, not just money. We have got a busy Christmas lined up with family and friends. In addition to beating loneliness, spending time with others is how you reconnect with them. If you can’t physically be with them, schedule a phone call for a lengthy chat (yes Skype, WhatsApp voice call whatever…). We have a gathering this year where we are getting ten friends over, all of whom are otherwise on their own. We’ll have food and drink, and everyone is bringing something to the party. They won’t necessarily know either other when they arrive at ours, but will hopefully by the time they leave.
  5. Take time to enjoy it: we’ll be cooking and hosting quite a bit, but that doesn’t mean it will just be a flurry of pots and pans, and a mountain of washing up. We prepare ahead (thank you freezer!) and ensure that we spend time with our guests. Our invitations are always not time-restricted. We only do one event per day, and other than knowing when to arrive our guests are welcome within reason to stay as long as they want. A guest from out-of-town is welcome to stay overnight.
  6. Don’t forget to spoil yourself: I collected a model train from Linz recently for myself, taking a trip by train to pick up some trains for the model railway club that an old lady was selling that had belonged to her late husband. Sure I didn’t need the engine, but when I connected up a loop of track at home the next day, the inner big kid in me was released, and I had a morning of fun with it.
  7. Keep religion and politics out of it: an elderly uncle gained the nickname “Napoleon Brandy” from my brother and I. One too many glasses and he would go full Napoleon, seeking to conquer Europe, offering all sorts of socially unacceptable problems to political issues. Keep politics and religion out of it over the festive period.

All that remains to be said, dear reader, is to have a peaceful, happy and healthy Christmas and New Year. If you are on your own or know someone who is, try to connect with others to ensure you break the circle of loneliness.