Last Christmas Eve one of my neighbours, Mr. Driscoll, called around with a bottle of whiskey. I had a bottle for him as well. I suppose it's no great surprise that we ended up sitting by the fireplace with glasses of whiskey in our hands. I asked him how he was spending Christmas Day and he said, "I'll be going to my daughter's house. I'll walk there, as long as it's not raining. A cold and frosty Christmas morning would be the ideal gift. Snow has been mentioned, the icing on the cake. The roads are quieter than on any other day of the year. You won't hear the sound of a car or a voice. It's a nice way to prepare for a house full of children who've just been given gifts.
"After dinner, the children will have their playthings to facilitate the flow of time. Some people are happy to watch TV. I'll need something warm and amusing to pass the afternoon, and for this I go out into the cold and walk through the fields to meet a group of people who perform a play for me each year. You'll hear them before you see them. If they're out of earshot, they'll remain invisible. Every year I go to the fields beyond the river, and I'll wait there until I hear the bells on their clothing. I'll look around and I'll see them eagerly walking towards me. They roam the fields on Christmas Day, searching for an audience. They stay well away from towns and villages. A few people like me will go to them and fill the role of an empty vessel in the performance of their play. They'll fill my head with thoughts and impressions as remarkable as their costumes. Ivy cascades over red velvet cloaks. Twigs bearing green leaves grow from buttonholes. Some of their hats are like buildings with ornate facades, recently-added mezzanine floors, balconies and attic windows through which you can see the flickering flame of a candle. Firm foundations on a steady head are needed to prevent the collapse of these structures. Not all of the performers have hats. One man has a wig that's spring-mounted and he can make it jump with his eyebrows when he wants to express surprise. I've seen workers in banks with similar hair pieces, but it takes on a magical quality in the fading light on Christmas Day. Nothing magical has ever happened to me in a bank.
"The women have long hair with ribbons that trail on the ground behind them. Every year there are new additions to the costumes, and sometimes they wear entirely new garments. Last year I saw an elderly man with wires rising from his shoulders, and on the ends of the wires were white clouds. I noticed the hands of a clock slowly spinning behind his back. On the ends of these three hands were a sun, a moon and a red airplane. They rose above his left shoulder before setting again. Another man wears a timber box. Sometimes the lid opens and he peeps out. His lines in the play are meant to be muffled by his cumbersome costume.
"The beginning of the action is signalled by the crash of cymbals. After an incomprehensible exchange between the man in the box and a woman dressed in black, the singers will perform their song in honour of winter. They'll be accompanied by musicians playing unusual instruments. One of these instruments resembles a cello. You'd expect the body of a cello to undergo many modifications on its journey from being a tree to its destination in an orchestra, but this cello-like instrument looks as if its journey came to an end shortly after it stopped being a tree.
"When the song is completed, a character known as Henry appears. He speaks about the threat of freezing weather, the pursuit of happiness, the promise of fire and the death of Fitzmaurice. He takes great pleasure in describing the unfortunate demise of Fitzmaurice. It happened at the hands of escaped convicts who blamed him for their incarceration in a dungeon equipped with abundant horrors. They had successfully enacted a plan to steal a recipe and the ingredients for a cake known to make people weep when they were parted from it, even though it looked as if only pigs were meant to find it appetising. They would have taken the cook as well, but she deterred them with an intimidating demonstration of what she could do with her elbows.
"Fitzmaurice gallantly confronted the brigands and single-handedly trapped them in a natural dungeon amongst the roots of an ancient oak tree. This was like a five-star hotel compared to the unnatural dungeon they were taken to. But they escaped from here, and they tracked down Fitzmaurice. Before killing him, they thanked him for inspiring the seething hatred that nourished their plan for escape, and expressed their regret that their gratitude would necessarily fail to offset their hatred.
"After Henry's speech, the play varies from year to year. Many characters will appear, and Fitzmaurice is always one of them. He confronts Henry. Swords are drawn and violence looms. Other characters will intervene, such as the priest with the imaginary hiccupping horse, or the woman who plants seeds from which rainbows grow. Digressions and long conversations with me are an essential part of the play. These gentle folk speak softly of the grasslands they call their home. A distant home. A place beyond the hills. 'The' hills. Not the sort of hills you can easily see, even when you're standing on their feet. A place where rivers bend so much they begin to resemble a lake full of countless small islands. Salmon happily meander down this winding course as they make their way to the sea. Jumping from island to island would be the simplest route on the journey home. The gentle folk often talk about going home, but it sounds to me like something they've consigned to the distant future.
"No matter how cold it gets, I'll gladly stay outside chatting to these people. After the sun has gone down they'll bring the action to a close with the appearance of a man in a hat that looks as if it could house numerous animals you'd normally find in a hedgerow. A final song is sung and we go our separate ways with warm goodbyes."
After hearing this I was determined to join Mr. Driscoll in the fields beyond the river on Christmas Day, but I was delayed because I had to act as peace-maker between my niece and nephew when their week-long fight about the existence of cauliflower flared up again. By the time I was ready to go it was nearly dark and it was snowing heavily, so I had to postpone my journey. I'm definitely going to go this year. My niece and nephew have been arguing about space recently. If hostilities break out on Christmas Day I'm going to let them sort it out amongst themselves.