Living in a smallish town makes one quite sensitive to the social aspects of what might otherwise be viewed as purely commercial changes in its atmosphere. Around Christmas-time, the change in the quantity of people in Witney on a market day is accompanied by a remarkable change in the quality of them, by which I don’t mean anything snobbish at all; but rather that town becomes far more populated by people I know, and am duty- and season-bound to chat to. At the very least, this lengthens any “quick trip into town”.
Yesterday I felt I had successfully drawn the long straw. K. was tasked with all manner of sociable duties involving public transport and other trials: helping out on a stall at the Green Fair in Oxford, getting signatures; trawling the same fair for Christmas presents; meeting a long-time but scatty friend; then offering to bring the remnants of said stall home with her for other people’s convenience. In return, I was glad to do the straightforward if time-consuming household chores, most of them oriented around a trip to town. Town, I reasoned, might be dreadful; but this was to be a surgical strike. But I reasoned without the Christmas Market Effect.
Stick-it-to-the-man was perched on his market stall as always, but – with encouragement from a friend, who was doing a mock-hard sell for him – ended up far more voluble than usual; or than I might have wished. Posher Cheese Woman encouraged me to buy a great deal of cheese, which entailed a phone discussion about Christmas food with my in-laws. I then bumped into J, whose daughter is recovering from chemotherapy and about to undergo microsurgery for lymphodoema: like SITTM, he was tremendously chatty, especially considering. But as I reeled from this latest long conversation, I bumped into the wife of an old, old colleague I had reprehensibly lost contact with, and – Christmas being the time of year for this sort of thing – promised among other things to get back in touch. It was all I could do to get home, social fuses blowing left, right and centre, and bury my head in a book while my internal electrician gradually, slowly, replaced them all.
Just in time for today, which was a far less stressful affair, despite being far more social in many ways. K. and I met up with two couples and their entirely charming offspring at the local farm museum, for its on-site Christmas market in the 17th century barns. The market, a mixture of craft stalls and small, local businesses, was perfectly complemented by both its space and by the presence of several different choirs singing outside it on grassy areas. There was mulled wine in the kitchen, Santa in the scullery, and enough warmth from the sun to drink our drinks outside. Over lunch we bumped into another local friend, and all chatted together. Afterwards, we invited one of the two couples back to ours, for more mulled wine, awful Christmas songs and cheese straws, and for their daughter to meet the cat.
These are the two sides of Christmas society for me: the society of acquaintances, occasionally difficult or awkward; and the society of friends, warm and pleasant. It’s so easy to prefer the latter, especially if like me you have perpetually limited resources available for your social powers to make use of. But if Christmas, if all festivals at this time of year, are about anything, then they’re about pulling people closer, drawing friends and yes acquaintances too around you, sharing that atavistic fear of the dark, because sharing is itself a kind of light that dispels it, or feels like it does.
But I’d still like a licence not to buy any more artisan delicacies in purchasing processes involving considerable human interaction, at least until the new year. After all, I need to save up my remaining fuses for Christmas with my family.