For me, it was the shrinking of the real world. Down and down and down, until sunset, when nothing existed beyond the boundaries of the house.
For one night, until the Sun rose again, there was nothing else.
In the peak of Summer, absolutely everything lay outside those walls. Friends, holidays, perpetual youth and optimism. Every day was littered with the building blocks of bright possible futures. The daylight stayed past ten o’clock in the evening, dawn came before I ever woke, and the world was vast – and mine to explore.
Winter changes things. Edges recede, and bulwarks are erected. First the windows are closed, then jackets are traded for coats. Gloves are put on. Curtains are drawn. The low, heavy beat of central heating – coming out of its own hibernation just as the animals enter theirs – willing us to remain inside, and sleep. The season of frost and ice carries a message that our blood hears clearly: stay here.
For children, there’s another dimension to it: a waiting game. December is the long march towards Christmas Morning. First we must exhaust what remains of school, then fulfil whatever duties we owe to family members by way of visiting and preparation. The final big grocery shop before the shutdown. Houses transformed by gaudy decorations. The dusty, sharp, metallic smell of tinsel. The eeriness of the tree, its shape and nature only made more mysterious by the twinkling lights that serve to obscure it. Lurking in a darkened room, silent and strewn with human-made trinkets, but still a living thing once.
On Christmas Eve, nothing else exists. The front door has been locked for the night. The house enjoys a last quiet moment of dignity before the excesses of the following day. Bedtime is anticipated like a visit to the dentist: an unpleasant necessity, best gotten over with as soon as possible. The night will be long, and will eventually bring fitful sleep and strange dreams.
I remember lying there, painfully awake, hearing my brother’s breathing from across the room and knowing he wasn’t asleep either. The world was probably even smaller than the house then; it was mostly centred on the living room almost directly below. We floated in its orbit, our minds fixed there, wondering what we’d find in the morning; what would be wrapped brightly, waiting to become ours.
Things that were beyond the reach of our everyday avarice, somehow made attainable by the suspension of all rules on this single night of the year.
I could have crept downstairs, certainly. I could have reached that room within half a minute of leaving my own. I had many years to try. But I never did. I think I knew that it existed only in the morning that was yet to come. If I’d gone down there by night, it would still be the same ordinary place I saw every day. I was yearning not just for a place, but a moment – and moments must be met on schedule.
Night finally relented. No matter how troubled our sleep had been, the dawn light found us exquisitely awake and aware. Once we were slightly older, and knew that our parents weren’t to be disturbed before a reasonable hour, we would lie there talking in whispers, and sometimes we even attempted to count away the seconds and minutes and hours.
The compromise was eight o’clock in the morning; we were allowed to get up then. We’d wait for 08:01 on the bedside alarm clock, to avoid any possibility of being sent back. Then the door was knocked, the dog sprang from his bed, and the household was irretrievably up for the day.
We remained in our pyjamas, but we were required to brush our teeth and wash our faces before going downstairs. My mother insisted on going into the living room first – today the site of a magical transformation – to check whether or not we’d been visited in the night. My brother and I would stand at the foot of the stairs, too excited to even speak. At last, we’d be called in, and as we rounded the open door to find the gifts laid out, somewhere a countdown reached zero. It would not reset for at least 24 hours, and then it would begin anew, inexorably marking the days until this morning’s counterpart the following year.
Through the lens of a child’s excitement and belief, moments like these exist outside the bounds of our everyday lives. Not just a particular morning of the year, but a place that can be reached only when specific circumstances are met; when the stars roll around, and the ritual elements are in place, and the Sun finally rises to throw a million points of light across the frost. Where there are candles instead of harsh bulbs, and bells rings when before they were silent.
A door is opened, and on just this single day, it leads to a different place – where rules have been suspended, and another world exists.
And then, of course, we grow up. Illusions fall away. Years pass, and one day we realise that now we light the candles, and hang baubles on the tree. We sleep in on that morning, if circumstances allow, or we’re roused by our own children’s too-eager faces. We proceed downstairs first, and open the door to a room we transformed ourselves the night before. We step over the threshold… and it’s just a room. The world is still vast, but cold, and with fewer futures ahead.
We can observe the ritual – and even the working of the magic, on those of the right age – but the gateway is lost to us. We’ve closed it off from ourselves, by allowing our minds to change.
But maybe we could believe again, somehow – so that we heard the slow ticking of the clock, as the first snow begins to fall. If we could just feel the world begin to shrink as December wears on, until the moon and the planets and the stars all come to spin in wild orbits around the roof of our own single home, on that one night. If we could make it though the elastic hours of darkness only with great effort, dreading to glance at the time for fear that it would stubbornly refuse to advance.
If we could reach the morning via that other path that was once so familiar, and throw open the curtains to find a world watching and waiting, with the full will of the heavens focused only on that one room below.
We could go down and wait for a moment at the foot of the stairs, contemplating a familiar door that may open to one of two places. The incantations performed, and all of Nature in alignment, as the handle turns.
Perhaps we could find it again, the doorway that leads elsewhere, just once more.