Saturday 3 December 2016

Magic of the mundane

A failed attempt to foist a little magic on her children reminded our writer what Christmas is really about

Sarah Caden

Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30

The magic of Christmas is the mundane stuff, says Sarah Caden.
The magic of Christmas is the mundane stuff, says Sarah Caden.
Sarah Caden

There's a reason that Driving Home for Christmas is one of the most popular Christmas songs ever. A song about a man driving. It's not an obvious winner. It's hardly filled with magic and sparkle and glitter and glow. But we love it; because it speaks to the true meaning of Christmas, which is not the magic, but the utterly mundane.

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In general, most people can take or leave magic, but, at Christmas, we tell ourselves that it's all that matters. And if the adults just can't bring themselves to feel it, we foist it on the kids.

Two Christmases ago, a friend told me about the Elf on the Shelf. It wasn't on sale here at the time, but someone had brought her kids one from America, and they loved it. She explained the principle, and I thought I loved it too. I immediately texted my brother-in-law in San Francisco, and asked if he'd send one. A few minutes later, my phone buzzed. Amazingly, he'd got one as a joke present at the office party that very day. The serendipity made it all the more seasonally magic, I imagined.

But then my elder daughter hated it. If you don't know the Elf on the Shelf drill, he's an impish-looking little doll whom you place somewhere in the house, somewhere he can observe naughtiness and niceness, and operate as a threatening tool for parents. But in the night, every night, the elf moves location. In the morning, every morning, your kids go looking for him. It's magical; unless your child happens to hate magic.

The elf was first placed on a bookshelf in the girls' bedroom. For about two minutes. "What if he comes near me when I'm asleep?" asked the elder. "Where do you think he's going to go?" "Will he make noise?"

She was terrified. I relocated him downstairs.

"What if he decides to come back up here?" She started up again. "Can we tell him not to come near my bed?"

I remembered, a bit late, that she isn't keen on magic. She hates people dressed in costumes, including shop Santas. She puts her lost teeth on her bedside locker, petrified by the thought of a tiny person crawling under her sleeping head. And no stocking hangs at the end of her bed, because she doesn't fancy the idea of a strange man creeping around her bedroom.

Which is sensible, right? Do you want creatures under your pillows or strange men rummaging around your room? No. Do adults enjoy unexpected, uninvited visitors at Christmas? Not really. And yet, this is the key element of the magic of Christmas. Or so we tell the kids.

Scratch the surface, and put the presents aside, and what kids find magical at Christmas isn't far off what we enjoy as adults. Being in your pyjamas all day. Watching TV at otherwise unacceptable hours. Eating outside of mealtimes, and just the general hanging out that never happens at any other time of the year.

They like, too, that there's nothing much to do. The rest of the year, we are always telling them we'll pay attention in a minute, that we have to finish something, go somewhere, or do something urgent but boring.

The magic of Christmas, we sometimes need reminding, is not moving elves or spying Santas. It's the mundane stuff.

The mundane stuff is pretty magical. And it doesn't last. It's not that children just move on from the childish Christmas stuff, it's that they move on altogether.

They don't want to hang out with you, they want to be off and gone, prioritising other people, making their own memories. And then you realise that the real magic was just having them around. Which is the plain and simple pure magic of Christmas.

The elf went back in the box. Then, the next day, he left the house.

As if by magic.

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