Today, I'm in the holiday spirit, as I welcome back C.C. Benison.
C. C. Benison is the pseudonym of Doug Whiteway. He has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines, as a book editor, and as a contributor to nonfiction books. He is the author of six previous novels, including Death at Buckingham Palace that won the Arthur Ellis Best Novel Award. C.C. Benison's seventh and latest novel is Ten Lords A-Leaping, the third in the series of crime novels inspired by the verses of the well-known carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she hasn’t got a lot to say.
Except, perhaps (and despite Paul McCartney’s lyric, above), at Christmas.
Last year in this space, I wrote about one of the two staples of Christmas morning television programming when I was young: a short film called On the Twelfth Day, featuring a young Edwardian man on a penny-farthing bicycle visiting his lady love at her snow-covered London house and bringing her gifts, starting with a partridge in a pear tree and ending with twelve drummers drumming. That little film, designed by cartoonist Ronald Searle, disappeared from Christmas morning viewing in Canada by the Sixties.
The other Christmas TV staple has not disappeared. Every December 25 since 1957, the Queen has popped up on television in the U.K. and in some of the other fifteen countries of which is Head of State (including Canada) to do a ten-minute show-and-tell about the year’s significant events, particularly ones that touched her personally, often illustrated with footage of some royal tour or some event in her family’s life – royal wedding and such. It’s one of the few times she speaks publicly without the advice of her government, to whom she is constitutionally beholden, but those of you who live in republics and, until recently (thanks to YouTube, etc.), had no access to this annual television rite, needn’t worry that, unleashed, Elizabeth Windsor goes off on some wacky tangent. Her Majesty really is a pretty nice girl. And she really doesn’t have a lot to say – certainly anything that’s seriously controversial. But at Christmas, amid the noise and haste and astonishing seasonal vulgarity, what she does say I always find welcomingly refreshing.
(Or perhaps it’s just that is she saying it.)
As a very young child, seeing the Queen on television Christmas morning was, to use the hackneyed word of our present day, awesome. But in later youth, mockery trumped wonder. Part of the Christmas dinner hilarity was to lampoon some aspect of her presentation – the cut-glass accent, the wobbly parting smile, the unremarkable views – to vex our old aunties and prove our street-cred as the bright young revolutionaries we thought we were. Well, that got old, we got old, and eventually regard trumped mockery. (And eventually, I wrote of series of crime novels in which the Queen, respectfully portrayed, plays detective.)
Today, watching the Queen’s broadcast on Christmas Day is the last ritual link to the Christmases of my childhood. Everything else has moved or changed, come or gone ¬– the people, the places, me. Her Majesty’s only contribution to change is that she has visibly aged (to watch successive YouTube videos of her Christmas broadcasts is to watch a sort of film flip-card of the softening and greying human form). Otherwise, she seems to remain at heart ever the same, which I find – however briefly – a source of comfort in a corrosive and uncertain world. This feeling is fundamentally irrational, but irrationality is addictive, powerfully so at this time of year when the northern hemisphere is turned from the clarifying sun and the days are short, dark and cold. Christmas is irrational. Monarchy is irrational. But they are harmless irrationalities, and managing our hopeless human irrationality – separating the harmful from the harmless variants – is every day’s civilizing task for every one of us.
But more. What startles me each time the Queen speaks from Buckingham Palace or Sandringham House, Christmas tree lit behind her, is that she, a public figure, a highly placed bureaucrat, if you will, does not offer just the usual anodyne expressions of presidents and prime ministers, the vague references to the “holidays” and “the season.” If you don’t enter a church at this time of year – and in the post-Christian West of the 21st century you may be among the many who do not – then you’d be hardly aware that Christmas is not a season invented to encourage pathological shopping in the service of buttressing consumer capitalism. Without timidity or hedging, the Queen gets to the point of the holiday/holy day – the birth of Jesus Christ.
“This is the time of year,” she said last Christmas, “when we remember that God sent His only son to serve, not to be served. He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer this Christmas day that His example and teaching will continue to bring people together to give the best of themselves in the service of others.”
This public expression feels almost like an act of nerve. Granted, she is the Head of the Church of England and you might think it part of her job description. But her position in life is secular and her expression of faith is, I’m sure, genuine – and touching because it is. Elizabeth doesn’t do “fake”. She’s not actressy. Her simple message is refreshing in a world of jockeying, elbowing politicians and public figures who stick their fingers in the air to see which way the wind blows before they say anything. Long may she reign.
A further memory of monarchial messages: My maternal grandmother, widowed on the eve of the great Depression with four young daughters, kept these words in a frame by her bedside all the years that I knew her:
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.
They’re from another Christmas broadcast, this one given on radio, by the Queen’s father, George VI, on December 25, 1939, as the citizens of the British Empire faced another world war.
In closing, as a certain monarch would say today, I wish you all a very happy Christmas.
And as a certain monarch wouldn’t say (but I rather wish she would!), Ten Lords A-Leaping is in shops now. I hope you enjoy it.
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