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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

18 December 2020

Malcolm Guite recalls a memorable childhood Christmas at sea

THIS is such a strange, strained, Covid-filtered Christmas that I feel we have to summon the richest memories of Christmas past, and fill our imaginations with the hopes of Christmas future, just to enlarge and enrich this Christmas present. This is one year when Dickens’s Christmas visitors will be doubly welcome.

When I look to Christmas past, and especially to my earliest memories, my mind is filled, first of all, with contrasts between the cards and the climate. I spent my first nine Christmases in the tropics, first in Nigeria and then in Zimbabwe, but, even as we sweltered in the heat, or dashed for shelter from tropical rainstorms beneath the nearest palm tree, we were all sending each other cards with robins in the snow and snow-covered Christmas trees. For me, the snow and the firs were as distant and magical as the snowy woods of Narnia, where Mr Tumnus strolled arm in arm with Lucy, in his red muffler and under his snow-covered umbrella.

But, if the great day never brought snow, it always brought something from Father Christmas, the one person from Narnia who seemed to come into our world, too; and I have layer on layer of memories of those excited early mornings when I would wake before my parents and discover what treasures he had left in my stocking.

But one particular Christmas shines clear in my memory. It began with great anxiety; for this was to be my first Christmas at sea. Ordinarily, our annual sea voyage “home” to England was in June, and not December, and I looked forward to it all year; for I loved being “on board ship”. I loved the journey in an old steam train to the coast, the excitements of the big railway station at Port Elizabeth, the porters helping us carry our trunks up the gangplank, the great Union-Castle liner herself with her gleaming decks and huge black and red funnel, the excitement of finding our cabin, and my pleasure in being allowed to sleep in the top bunk. And then, in the fortnight that followed, there was the whole ship to explore, the sailors and passengers to befriend, and the other “ship’s children” to play with.

But this time I was worried. We would be far out at sea on Christmas Eve, well out of sight of land; what if Father Christmas couldn’t find us? My mother said that it would be fine, but I was not so sure.

On Christmas Eve, all the children were invited into the ship’s dining hall for a special party, timed to end just before bedtime, and there were all kinds of games and good things to eat. And then, just in the midst of them, we heard a crackling on the Tannoy, and suddenly we could hear everything that was going on up on the bridge! Someone must have pressed the wrong button!

But it was fun to eavesdrop. We heard the Captain’s familiar voice telling the helmsman to keep her steady. We heard the engineer report that all was well in the engine rooms. And then, suddenly, we heard an alarmed call from the navigator: “Something on the radar, sir. North-north-west, approaching swiftly. Shall I take evasive action?” “Hold your course steady,” the Captain called. “Let’s see if I can get a sighting through the binoculars.” Down in the dining room, we all held our breath.

“Oh yes, yes, it is!” came the Captain’s jubilant voice. “It’s him! Slow and steady,” he called to the engineer. “Bring her over, and cut the furnace for a moment; we don’t want too much heat and smoke when he comes down the funnel. All right, everybody, prepare to take on an extra passenger.”

And then we heard a blast of the whistle and all kinds of clanging and clattering, (that’ll be the reindeer’s hooves on the funnel I thought, in awe). Then there was silence, and, a few minutes later, three figures emerged through the dining-room doors.

The first was the Captain, looking very smart in his full uniform, and then, grinning from ear to ear beneath his flowing white beard, as large as life and twice as natural, the portly, scarlet-clad figure of Father Christmas himself, followed swiftly by the engineer with an oil can in one hand and a white rag in the other, still trying to brush the last of the soot off Father Christmas’s cape.

I was overjoyed. And it was all as good as it could possibly be. Father Christmas called each of us by name, and there were presents for everyone. And he must have got my letter, which I’d left at the ship’s post office, despairing that it couldn’t possibly be delivered so far from land, because inside my parcel was the very thing I’d asked for: a little yellow racing car with a real clockwork engine, and its own special key to wind it, which I’d seen in the ship’s little shop, and which my mother had said we couldn’t afford. But I thought I’d ask Father Christmas anyway.

We would still be on board ship for a while yet before we finally got home, but, for me, the voyage was transformed.

And now, in the glow of that memory, I feel the same way. Here we are, all in the same ship, on this strange and stormy voyage through 2020, many of us still hunkered down below decks, longing for the day when we make landfall on post-pandemic shores.

But we are not alone. If Father Christmas could join our ship out in mid-ocean, then I have no doubt that One Greater Than Father Christmas will come, as he always does, even through these winter storms, these high waves of doubt and despair, to be with us on this voyage. And I will be even more glad to welcome him than I was to welcome his white-bearded harbinger on that far off Christmas Eve at sea. For Christ is in the offing, and he will be on board with us, when this shared ship of ours comes sailing in on Christmas Day in the morning.


Listen to Malcolm Guite read and reflect on the Advent antiphons, on this week’s edition of the Church Times Podcast.

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