My father’s car, circa 1961 – The Standard 10
When I was five or six years old, my father would give me a treat over the Christmas time, taking me to midnight Mass at the local church in Melksham. (A small market town in Wiltshire, England). That evening we went into church, which was packed to the gills, I was just in wonder where all these people had come from, as “normal” Mass would only fill the Church to a third at best. However, this evening everyone was full of good cheer and perhaps a little excess based on the sounds of the less than expert singers standing at the back of the Church.
Anyway, this was a great treat for me, I was never allowed to stay up this late, and the extra pleasure of being able to spend the evening with my dad. He said I could come if I could stay awake, I guess I was wired to stay up that night.
It was a cold and dark night as we made our way out of the Church, many hands been shaken and Merry Christmas’s exchanged in the parking lot. As we made our way to the car my father noted that a side window of our Standard 10 had been forced open. Earlier that evening, one of my dad’s friends had given presents for the family, and my dad had stacked them up on the back window. I was particularly excited about this, as I knew we could only rely on a few close relatives for gifts and these others were going to be a bonus from someone who cared about us.
They were gone. My father was devastated, or rather very angry. I had seen him angry before, but this time he was both angry and sad at the same time. For some reason which I still don’t really understand, he did not report it to the police but rather looked up and down the street a while and then bundled me into the car and we set off for our cottage a few miles away in a village called Semington.
As I sat in the car with the presents gone, I wondered why someone would do something as cruel as take our gifts, if I was honest, particularly my present. What did that man I knew only as “Pete” think enough about me to give me a present? Mine looked like a big one, as I had investigated as only a child can, before we headed into church.
I think this may be my first memory of crying for something that I really mourned the loss of, did that present contain the toy that would sustain me for another 12 months? It was gone, along with all the future memories of playing with it.
In addition, I learnt a new word that evening. Thief. Someone who took something that didn’t belong to them. Previously reduced to me sneaking an extra chocolate out of the family “Christmas Chocs”, or something that you heard on the radio or TV when someone robbed a bank, the word thief was not in my youthful vocabulary. Somehow, the thief taking my present made my world different, and I had moved from the safe world of St. Anthony’s and the birth of Christ, to the cold outside and a car bereft of our Christmas cheer.
In retrospect now, some fifty years hence, I wonder about the person who took those presents. Did he or she have no presents for their children and therefore fall to the temptation. We obviously must have had more than just was in the car, as on Christmas morning, most of the other presents would be safely tucked under our tree at home. I recall my dad used to leave that side window ajar as he would use it to flick cigarette ash out of the car while driving. Perhaps that was the invitation the “thief” needed.
I spent some of the day yesterday giving out Christmas gift packages to inmates at a local prison. I said several hundred Merry Christmas’s, shook all their hands and delivered a small gift package donated by local businesses and individuals who care. I know for some of these people this would be all they would get this year. Perhaps that was the way of the person who took our presents all those years ago.
At this time, we can be grateful for so much, Christmas is a time of hope and family love. As we share it with each other, let us share in forgiveness, which may be the greatest gift of all. I forgive the person who took my “mystery” present all those years ago. I hope it did their family some good at the time. The real present I had that year was my family and the love of God, I understand that was the real gift that Christmas.
Perhaps if we don’t just say the words “I forgive you” but feel them inside ourselves, we will all have a more wonderful holiday. In fact, I am sure we will.
Mike Cunningham has written this on a previous Christmas Day