Before I became a cynical, embittered angry young man at the age of 12 and rejected the whole season as a gross consumerist farce, I used to love Christmas.
And though I still see Christmas that way; I don’t give presents, send silly cards or ritually overeat with family I have no interest in seeing on the 25th, yet I can look back to my childhood days with a kind of fond nostalgia. There’s something pure about any love, after all, and the naive enthusiasm with which I awaited the arrival of the tree; the shrewd, tactile assessment of what might lie beneath the garish wrapping paper of the presents with my name written on them nestled under the branches; the melancholy with which I would witness the Christmas lights disappear from windows up and down the street in the first days of January…hell, when I have kids I’ll probably put up decorations, get a tree and go through the whole glitzy ritual just to see the expressions on their faces.
But there was one thing I loved most about the Christmas season and that was the little glass balls – snow globes, I think they’re called – with a miniature castle inside or absurd scenes of Santa Claus on a sleigh, and when you shook them the snow came falling down! It might not seem the most obvious toy to excite a young boy but when I’d grown tired of my other presents (which all looked better in the TV commercials than in real life), and I’d eaten enough sweet food to never want to see dessert again, then I’d return to the little glass balls and shake! – the little snow flakes would come floating down in a tiny, distant world in the palm of my hand. The last one would land and then I’d tip it upside-down and watch it all over again.
Perhaps the snow held some fascination because it was so rare in the south of England where I grew up where only the most severe winters might give a child the thrill of waking up to a blanket of white which, if not deep enough for snow men, could at least allow snowball fights and sledging down the hills in the park.
To be a child is fundamentally to be powerless. Someone else decides what you eat, wear, where you go and when it’s time for bed. Other children found freedom from this tyranny by pretending to be omnipotent superheroes, wizards or witches, but for me it was enough to hold another world in my hands and shake! I could change the weather! If someone had asked me in that moment the tired old question of what I wanted to be when I grew up I might honestly have answered: God!
I was 10 when it happened.
I was walking with my parents through the second hand market near the train station on New Year’s Day where everyone came to sell the junk cluttering up their houses – and one suspected that unwanted Christmas presents must be high on the list. This was in an era before the internet when if you wanted to buy or sell something you had to actually meet the eye of the other person if…but I’m sounding like an old fart already. Anyway it was a bright, crispy day to begin the year and I was skipping along in high spirits; feeling, in fact, considerably better than my hungover parents who followed a few hundred meters behind, wishing they’d had the sense to stop drinking at midnight the evening before.
I had ten pounds in my pocket, thanks to my grandmothers who never forgot to send me a card with a stiff 5 pound note hidden inside, and so you can imagine my delight when I came across a table with a collection of snow globes sat on top of an old blanket. They were on sale for a pound each and I wondered whether I might really blow all my fortune on the entire collection – after all, how many Gods could boast of having ten different worlds in their hands?
‘Looks like we’ve got ourselves a real connoisseur here!’ the man behind the stall said from his deckchair, looking up at me over his newspaper – a rag dedicated to horse races. I nodded indifferently, reluctant to admit that I didn’t know what ‘connoisseur’ meant.
‘I’m a collector,’ I told him. Which was sort of true. Once I’d bought all the globes on the table I would be.
‘Oh really?’ he said, lifting himself out of the chair, ‘And how much do you have to spend on the latest acquisitions for your collection?’
‘Ten pounds!’ I announced proudly, innocent in my youth of the nuances of bargaining.
‘Well, in that case we’d better find you something really special!’ And, after holding my eye for a moment, he shuffled over to the boot of his car and returned a moment later with something round wrapped up in a white cloth. ‘Now, look – there aren’t many of these left, understand? If I sell it to you you have to give me your word..as a collector…never to show it to anyone else, get it?’
I nodded, feeling in truth a little intimidated and yet burning with curiosity to see what was hidden beneath the cloth. ‘How much is it?’
‘It’s beyond price. But I’ll let you have it for a tenner,’ he declared, neatly extracting my Christmas money from between my fingers and slipping my new acquisition into my coat pocket. ‘Not a word to anyone, remember? Now off you go and see you next year!’
I walked off and suffered the next hour and a half with the urge to unwrap the globe and see what scene was inside it that could be so special but I was determined to keep my promise to wait until I was alone. Eventually my parents agreed it was time to go home which for them meant aspirin and coffee while it was all I could do not to break into a run as we approached the house. I climbed the steps to my room, locked the door, and then knelt down and, with trembling fingers, I unwrapped the cloth and found an opaque black ball. I could see absolutely nothing inside. I shook it hopefully and bitter tears filled my eyes as I realised that I had been well and truly cheated for the first time in my life.
Do you remember what it felt like the first time you were cheated? Lied to? Tricked? If you ask me those are the first tears in the fabric of our innocence, the first cracks in our childhood world when it suddenly occurs to us that while we’ve always assumed we’re at the centre of the world, cherished and adored, there are as many worlds as there are people and most of them are quite indifferent as to whether it snows in our little globe or not.
I resisted the impulse to run and tell my parents that I had been conned as the last thing I wanted was a lecture. Now it seems to me that crying all by myself in my room was one of those countless but vital steps we take towards growing up. I consoled myself only by thinking of what I would do and say to that awful man with the newspaper next New Year’s Day.
And that’s the end of the story.
The end of the story as I wrote it 5 years later for an assignment in my English class on the subject of Childhood. It made it into the school magazine. The teach praised my honesty and courage in the portrayal of my younger self. My parents were delighted and I absorbed the general praise with a sense of modesty and..empowerment: that of having tricked the whole world – which is perhaps the second stage of growing up.
Because the story hadn’t actually ended there.
Later that day, when everyone in my house had gone to bed not much later than me, I awoke from a satisfying dream of throwing mince pies at the man in the market, and discovered that something was lighting up the room with a dim radiance. Again, this was in the days before cell phones and computers regularly did this and I sat up cautiously to find that my glass ball was glowing from under the bed where I had furiously rolled it earlier in the day. I climbed out of bed and stretched a tentative hand to fetch the globe and was astonished to discover that it was now an opaque white. I still couldn’t see anything inside and neither could I see anywhere obvious that a battery might be hidden. Finally, with the curiosity of a child, I put my eye up to the glass and…entered another world.
I found myself looking down on enormous mountains covered in forests as far as the eye could see. In the distance the sun was shining on a powerful river that snaked its way down to a distant ocean. I glanced towards the horizon and the landscape scrolled beneath my eyes rapidly until I was looking down at tropical islands in a turquoise sea. I saw tiny little figures moving and, as I squinted, I zoomed in on them to see half-naked people in canoes diving for pearls and lobsters.
Hoping more than I’d ever hoped that this wasn’t just some kind of a dream, I rolled over oceans until I reached another continent and, after some searching, I come across a tribe hunting a giant mammoth; it roared furiously and swung at them with its tusks while they attacked it with spears. Two of them died before they brought the beast down and ensured their families would eat well for the next month.
I spied on the world in my hand for hours on end until daylight began to trickle in through the curtains and simultaneously the globe began to darken. I longed for my family to wake so I could show them my new treasure and I thought how jealous my friends at school would be when they saw it! But then I remembered the promise I had made to the man in the market. It also occurred to me that if it turned out that I was the only person who could see the world inside the glass ball then they’d call me a liar or send me to see some funny doctor. If, on the other hand, everyone could see the little tribes running around inside the globe then it would almost certainly be taken away from me to be studied in some laboratory, maybe giving me a new bicycle in exchange.
No, I would keep it for myself. Even if that meant I might not be getting much sleep at night for some time to come.
My parents were impressed by my New Year’s Resolution to go to bed early each night and I would turn out the lights at once and huddle beneath the blankets with my little globe. I could zoom out and watch thunderstorms roll in, bolts of lightning setting forest on fire; I could zoom in under the sea and follow the activities of a pod of dolphins as they hunted down a school of fish.The people in my world all lived in tribes and they survived by hunting and gathering and almost everything, from their tools to their clothes, was made from the animals they killed. But even the most fascinating scenes grow boring for a ten year old boy in the end. After weeks of watching the same old scenes over and over, I pulled back wearily from the globe one night, and looking at the opaque white surface, I remembered the little castles with snowflakes falling slowly down that I used to love..and on an impulse, I gave the globe a good shake!
The globe began to vibrate and I dropped it in shock. It then started to flash white and black with the intensity of a strobe light and when, some minutes later, it calmed down it took me a while before I found the courage to look in again. I discovered to my delight that while some tribes still ran around hunting animals, others had settled now and had started to farm the land, build settlements and strange temples to unknown gods where they sacrificed animals to make sure the sun would rise the next day. I watched for an hour until curiosity got the better of me and I shook it again; when the globe had stopped flashing I saw that now sailboats went up and down the coast delivering cargo to great cities whose markets bought and sold spices, slaves and textiles from far away lands. On the balconies of stone houses there stood men in robes who debated matters of philosophy and politics. The forests were in retreat as farmland grew and soliders armed with steel stood on the city walls.
I shook the globe again and this time the skies were dark with crows that swooped down to feed on the dead and dying on vast battlegrounds; towns nearby in flames as marauding armies left a trail of devastation and destruction behind them. Shocked, I scrolled away to see ships carrying loads of groaning slaves across oceans to a continent of enormous plantations of cotton and sugar. Moving quickly on to other parts of the globe I saw churches and temples dominating the skyline of towns, their followers wearing esoteric symbols around their necks or painted on their foreheads.
I gave the globe an extra long shake this time, wanting to put the terrible images far behind me. When I looked in I saw that now the skies weren’t black with crows but with satanic black smoke belching out from factories where workers slaved away in crowded, miserable conditions. People died of disease in the streets and were taken away on carts with noisy, metal wheels pulled by the horses that dominated the cities; everywhere there was horse shit piled up and rats ran along the gutters, quite unafraid. Railways cris-crossed the continents and steam boats replaced the sails.
Another shake and I saw the first cars replacing the horses and planes were making short journeys through the sky. Terrible wars were fought with deafening explosions as hundreds of thousands of men huddled like rats in trenches. In the peaceful parts of the world the towns were lit with electric lights and the rich wore eyeglasses as they read books and newspapers in cafes where there was always a radio playing. The cities were mostly slums but the mud was gone and telegraph wires crossed the country.
Shake! Now the world became more recognizable to me; cars drove the streets of the cities which were brightly lit with streetlights and neon signs; behind the curtains of each house could be seen the flickering light of TV sets and every morning their occupants went out to work in factories and offices. In some towns national flags were flying everywhere and the squares filled with huge rallies crying out loud the slogans of charismatic leaders dressed in army uniforms.
The last time I shook the globe, overwhelmed and exhausted, I saw fleets of planes flying across the skies between the great continents, letting fall cascades of bombs which set the world on fire..the smoke rising in enormous mushroom formations…
The explosions were unbearably bright and I drew back from the globe, trembling with shock, wishing I hadn’t witnessed such appalling, cataclysmic scenes. It was too much to take in and all I could think to do was shake the globe and look again. But now and each time thereafter when I looked inside all I saw were desolate, infertile lands covered in dust, with not a living creature moving below. Finally, the light in the glass faded to a dark black and I couldn’t see anything inside no matter how hard I squinted.
I think my childhood ended that night. I was still far from being an adult, of course, and for the next few years I wandered in a kind of no-man’s land until I developed enough perspective to understand what I’d seen. We all need a point of view to make sense of our lives. What is a story but the perspective of the one telling it? But I was too young to have seen so much and it probably made me old before my time. The following Christmas I declared that I didn’t want any presents and refused to take part in the whole charade. My parents were saddened by my bitterness but respected my wishes and asked only that I could at least spare the feelings of my grandmothers and accept the money they sent me in garish Christmas cards featuring elves and reindeer.
When New Year’s Day came, despite my protests, they insisted that I get some fresh air and join them on a walk to the second hand market. I shuffled past the stalls in a very different mood than the year before.
‘You just couldn’t wait, could you?’ I turned to face the man who had sold me the globe the year before. His paper was under his arm and he looked down at me with a disbelieving expression. ‘A lifetime it could have lasted you! Instead it took, what, a week? Shakey-shakey until it was all over! Well, I hope you enjoyed yourself!’
‘I’m sorry,’ I mumbled, looking at the ground, ‘I don’t suppose…’
‘I’ve got another one? No! And if I did I’d hardly waste it on the likes of you!’
I nodded and started to walk away shamefully but the question that had been on my mind all year rose to my lips and I turned to ask:
‘Sorry, but..all the time I was looking in…did they ever see me?’
The man looked at me thoughtfully. ‘Well, you’re not a complete idiot, it seems. For your peace of mind, no, they never saw you. Each time you looked you were just one more star in their sky, that’s all. Who ever counts the stars in the sky every night, after all?’
Perspective. We all carry around a point of view. Any writer knows that. But that day I learned that it’s not just about who’s looking out but who might be looking in.