Thursday, 23 December 2010
And so this is Christmas...
So here at Akrotiri, Christmas is very nearly upon us. The snow may be fake but the sentiments certainly ain’t. There has been a hive of activity in the past couple of weeks as units, schools, clubs and families prepare for the festive season. Not a day goes by without the tinny festive tunes emanating from one building or another as folk celebrate in their unique ways. Christmas in the sun always seems a little odd, especially as we are regaled daily with woeful stories of issues caused by the horrendous snow conditions back in the UK. There has certainly been an air of panic here as those due to fly back to join families in Blighty are wringing their hands and biting their lips, hoping that the planes due to spirit them home will be permitted to fly. Those remaining here have their own concerns that the postal system will not fail them and will provide the much anticipated presents and toys ordered weeks before, and that Santa will come up with the goods on the day.
It is at times like these that many parents breathe a collective sigh of relief at the lack of advertisements shown on BFBS. Not for us the heart-stopping moment when our little darlings announce at 5.25pm on Christmas Eve that they really, really, really hope that Santa remembers to bring them the must-have, sold-out-by-Halloween, going-for-a-hundred-quid-on-ebay latest toy that they just happened to glance at on a commercial break 30 seconds ago. The kind that forces you away from your mince pies and into the Baltic air to fight it out in frenzied retail establishment for a gift that you can guarantee will either be broken or discarded before the Christmas Pud has even been lit. I am more than grateful that my offspring are content with whatever surprise that the Jolly Red Fellow bestows on them, and that the nice Mr BFPO has delivered on time. Aah, the magic of Christmas.
So much changes here at Akrotiri at this time of year, including the demographic age profile. As the lucky few escape to loved ones in the UK, so they are replaced by visitors to Cyprus, especially the grandparents. The young, lithe childminders so frequently seen in the play areas around camp are transformed into greyer, wrinklier, slightly less mobile but no less loving and dedicated individuals. They are easily recognised, not just by the obvious signs of seniorship, but also by their dress. Vest tops, shorts and flip-flops are the order of the day unlike the locals who are now donning jeans, boots and jackets and making the customary ‘brrr’ noises as the sun beats relentlessly down.
The Cypriots do Christmas in their own inimitable loud and garish style. The streets are festooned with millions of twinkling lights and the roundabouts in the town centres adorned with tableaux and enormous decorations. One such roundabout in the centre of Limassol bears a humungous rotating Santa, not all of him but just the head, bearing a smile which I’m sure is supposed to be jolly and benign but actually corners the market in malevolence. He scares the bejaysus out of children to such an extent that many parents have been forced to make a complicated diversion to the shops to avoid major hysterics. Supermarkets sport the most enormous trees which would put Trafalgar Square to shame and PA systems blare out seasonal carols and tunes. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the Cypriot version of Cliff Richard singing his heart out with “Kreezmazz taime, meezletoo and wayayan”.
Culturally, there, thankfully, aren’t a huge number of differences and the Cypriots have come to accommodate a great deal of UK traditions so the likes of turkey and stuffing are not too hard to find. I’ve yet to track down a pot of Brandy butter but, no doubt, there will be a little corner of expat land that will be able to oblige. Either that or a puzzled but willing local shopkeeper will be happy to douse my tub of Flora with a generous splash of Keo VSOP.
One of my favourite aspects of the run-up to Christmas is the school nativity plays. I’m sure there is many a primary teacher who has made a significant dent in the secret staff room drinks cabinet over the past few weeks who would beg to differ, but for me they are a joy. Nothing says Christmas like the annual parade of tea-towel and tinsel wearing small persons, each desperate to depict the events of the Holy Night in their own unique way. My holidays wouldn’t be complete without a glimpse of a shouty shepherd, a nose-picking angel and a sobbing donkey. It really makes my day to watch the misty-eyed, camera-clicking parents (one of whom I admit to be) jostle for position as their own little cherub stops the proceedings to wave at Grandma, theatrically nudges a word-shy school mate or , in a fidgety bored moment, lifts a silvery robe to display a distinctly un-angelic set of underwear. I take my hat off to the teachers who work hard each year, stage managing and conducting, trying to put an ever more entertaining, contemporary and unique spin on the Greatest Story Ever Told. No matter what, each year is a triumph of sheer cuteness and heart-wrenching adorability.
So all that remains for me to do is to wrap a few remaining presents and contemplate the mammoth vegetable peeling session that awaits us on Christmas morning. Amidst all the frenzy of stockings and wrapping paper, cracker pulling and silly paper hat wearing, I hope many of you will join me in sparing a thought for the hundreds of military families for whom this traditional time of happiness is a sore reminder that there is one empty chair at the table this year. I hope we all take a moment to give thanks for the souls that are fighting for their lives, and for our freedom, as we merely struggle to leave the dining table. I remember stories of the First World War where one battlefield ground to a halt on Christmas Day and enemies called a truce to emerge from the trenches to exchange gifts and play football. I only wish that life in Afghanistan were that simple, but, sadly, I very much doubt it.
To all of you I wish a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, but to some I wish more – a peaceful and safe 2011, and to those who have lost loved ones true tidings of comfort and joy.