december 5th - the gift of secret guilt
Christmas had been a magical time for me, as I suppose it is for most children, and that’s why, I suppose people keep on doing it – but nothing that magical can last. I was six when I first felt guilt. And when I knew that if Santa asked me if I’d been good, I wouldn’t be able to put hand on heart and say yes.
And it was all down to advent calendars.
Unlike today, in my childhood an advent calendar was a pretty simple affair. And my brother and I had one between us. To teach us how to share. In those days advent calendars were a way of counting down the days, not the giver of daily gifts or chocolates or daily brand promotion like they are today. So why would each child need their own? There were two of us, so we took turns opening the door. It was a ritual first thing in the morning, before breakfast. We would gather round the advent calendar, which as I remember was hung (or stuck) on the wall by the cupboard under the stairs. The cupboard which houses adult exciting consumer items like the Hoover and the ironing board. Just along from the twin-tub. Oh, we had it all!
There it hung. The Advent Calendar. Teaching us the date and how to share. Turn and turn about. It was exciting – for a moment – to open the door and find what the picture was. Even though what it was wasn’t exciting at all. A picture of a gift box, a tree. You know, I can’t for the life of me remember what was behind those doors, but you knew that on 24th you’d get the nativity scene behind a bigger box. So that if you were on the even days (as I usually was, because after all I was the second child) you had one less surprise to come.
I think this was somewhere in the back of my head in my warped logic as I prepared to commit my crime.
It was early in December. There were at least 20 doors to be opened. The anticipation was the biggest part of the excitement. That every day you would find something new, something you couldn’t know about till that little cardboard door was prised back. But the year I was six (at least I think it was then) I did a terrible thing. My first terrible thing. I opened my brother’s door. A day ahead.
I might blame it on my reading matter. ‘My Naughty Little Sister’ was a favourite and I clearly remember Bad Harry sneaking in and eating all the little silver balls off the cake. I remember the warm spread of guilt up my own neck, allied with some kind of a vicarious thrill of the crime as I read it. I didn’t think carefully about the consequences. I obviously got lost in the narrative. I was a copycat criminal. I have no other excuse.
It was a pre-meditated crime. It had to be. I had to find a time when I could be alone in the hallway, when everyone else was busy, so that I could open the door, peek inside and shut it again. Which I did. I hadn’t reckoned on two things. One that it would be the devil’s own job to shut that little door again and make it look unopened. I really should have figured that out in advance! And the second thing was the sense of guilt. Now that one I could never be prepared for, even given my experience of Bad Harry. I learned the difference between reading and doing! The guilt was all consuming. From the moment I opened that door it was like Pandora had opened the box. It was an act that could never be undone. Could never be expunged from my life. All I could do was tell, or keep it a secret.
I kept it a secret. Till now. That’s one door open which will never be shut again.
You’ll probably be laughing by now. It’s hardly crime of the century is it? But it serves as my first (and not last) experience of feeling real, personal guilt. And it never went away. It coloured everything about that Christmas, and everything about Christmases after that. I never wanted another Advent Calendar. The excitement of opening doors was never to be mine again. Every time I looked at one, I remembered what I’d done. I’d cheated. I was not to be trusted. I’d stolen from my brother. Even though he probably never knew and certainly never cared - it’s just a lame picture of a donkey or a ball or some such isn’t it? Even though it never mattered to anyone else in the world, it was my shame.
The worst was standing there the next morning. Pretending to be excited that I didn’t know what was behind the door. Hoping that no one noticed it wasn’t quite as stuck down as it had been. Returning to the scene of the crime isn’t a comfortable feeling, believe me. And all around me, Advent continued along its ding dong merrily on high way. No one knew. But I knew. And Santa would know. I was NOT a good girl. And there was no way back. It was the first step towards not believing in Santa. All the good work of the previous year with Pippin Fort was lost in the mists of time. No way would that miracle ever be repeated.
I remember the next even day telling my brother that he could open my door if he wanted – that I didn’t care. I remember him looking at me strangely. I thought he knew. He probably just wondered what was wrong with me. Why make such a fuss? It’s a little cardboard door. From that moment on the ritual lost its charm. The potency of excitement of the unknown was lost in the reality of guilt. I hated Advent Calendars. I hated myself. And I learned the most valuable lesson of my life. Actions have consequences. And consequences can hang around a long, long time. So be very careful what you do and think before you act.
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An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.