Knitted, carved, sculpted, or cast…. who and what are depicted in your Nativity Scene? Despite their being no Biblical reference to their presence, our miniature Holy Families kneel in stables that are populated by cattle and donkeys. Snow amasses on the thatched roof. We do know it’s likely that only a camel was exhaling its malodorous breath over the celebrated events, and that the weather outside was actually frightfully hot, but the old images persist.
A Staffordshire farmer of my acquaintance returned in sceptical mood from one of his very numerous foreign holidays. He was dubious as to whether the church of the Holy Nativity in Manger Square, Bethlehem, truly marked the site of the First Noel, since no trace of barn, straw, or livestock was anywhere in evidence.
My dad spent Christmas 1945 in the Holy Land. When the rains fell in sudden torrents there that winter, it was onto ground so hot that the tents in which the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards were billeted near Lake Tiberius were filled with steam, and young Guardsman Horton was obliged to sign off abruptly at the end of his letter home to his sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Alf Cooper at the Owletts Farm in Lynn, a world away in cold and foggy rural Staffordshire.
As Zionist terrorist activity accelerated in Palestine, the Arab League was vainly fighting for its right to be heard in the debate surrounding the creation of a Jewish State. British politicians lobbied against the US inclination to allow massive immigration of displaced European Jewry to what they considered to be their homeland. My dad was still accustoming himself to the otherness of the all the various peoples he was encountering in this foreign country. He related to Alf and Mary that the Bedouin men, he had been told, were stealthy enough to steal rifles and a mosquito nets, and even the bedding from beneath a sleeping soldier without disturbing him – and would attempt the raids with their scantily clad bodies slippery with grease, so that they could evade the grasp of their victims even in the event that they woke them up.
To think that two years previously, the trip he had taken to the recruiting office in Bethesda Street, Hanley had been the furthest he had ever travelled on his own. Here is an audio clip in which he tells me how chance had it that he evolved from (young) Shenstone Home Guardsman to Welsh Guardsman:
He’d had a wealth of character building experiences in the following months. Many were the subjects of familiar anecdotes that were related in various degrees of detail from time to time down the years, depending upon their audience. One of the most arresting is the story he told of a magical night near the desert camp that Christmas. I wonder whether “0003 Porter”s family were ever regaled with the tale of the evening he and my dad spent at the party of their dreams, with beautiful girls, delicious food, and the most intoxicating of festive atmospheres. Eager for more of the same, they retraced their steps for hours the following evening to no avail: the dazzlingly lit venue was nowhere at all to be found. Nowhere. At. All.
I have memories of the evening recounted in glorious detail by my dad as a younger man. All I can offer you is this recording of a chat between us – middle aged daughter and elderly man – him giving a cursory account of the night because he knew I’d heard it all before. Let this be a lesson to all would-be historians. Soon, so soon, it becomes “too late.” Empty chairs at my Christmas feast.