By Hilary Jocelyn
The main highlight for me at Christmas when I was growing up, wasn’t the surprises under the tree, or the food, or the celebrations with friends and family. It was what happened at the end of the day when the turkey was well on its way through my digestive system, and the last dish had been washed, dried and put away. Normally, this would be bedtime for my two sisters and I, but instead, we put on our coats and headed out the door into the dark dark night with my dad. He was a man of unpredictable moods for most of the year, but without fail, by the time Christmas night arrived, he became the good natured dynamic and charismatic leader of the family pack.
We lived on the edge of a city and if you turned one way you could walk into town in about half an hour, and if you turned the other way, you would be in the hills and the fields in a few brief hops, skips, and jumps. On Christmas Night, we were definitely not going in the town direction, and so would head up the dark rough track past the farm, leaving the sparkle of lights on the tree that shone brightly from our upstairs window. We then walked, arm in arm, up the hill ahead of us, stumbling as we went and as our eyes became accustomed to the blackness.
When we got to the end of the track there was a country road ahead and my dad would pretend that the cars that passed us were spaceships, or robots from Dr Who, or aeroplanes driven by aliens that were searching for us. Every time a car passed, we would duck into the bushes, engrossed in this imaginary game and delighting in my father’s transformation. Along this road we would walk until we came to a wooded area with steps going down it. Here, as we clambered down, we would turn into hobbits and elves, hiding behind trees making strange animal noises as we giggled and hooted riotously on our descent.
Once at the bottom, we had to cross over a stream, and climb, in the dark, up a steep rocky rise lined with prickly gorse bushes. I was always a bit scared right about here, as I had heard this was the scene of a few local accidents and tumbles, but I held on to my sister’s hand tightly, and slowly but surely we always made it up without any dramas. Arriving at the top, we could see a view of the whole city of Edinburgh below us, and we would stop walking and lie on the grass and look up at the stars. My dad knew all the constellations and I wish I had listened more to his teachings as he would recognize and point out to us beautiful shapes in the sky like ‘ Orion and his Belt’, and the ‘Canis Minor’ and ‘Andromeda’. I was more interested in the mystery of seeing a star shooting out of the heavens, so I could make a Christmas wish, and I would gaze dreamily upwards, scanning the sky for signs of movement.
When we had star gazed enough, and were cold and damp and beginning to shiver, we continued on our journey. This involved climbing over a barbed wire fence, passing and ignoring a sign in big red letters that said ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted ‘and crossing over the golf course that splayed in front of us. None of us were rule abiders and we nourished the exhilaration that comes from breaking them, as we padded across the green, ducking into the dunes with more imaginary play.
At the edge of the golf course we had another challenge. Not only another barb wired fence, but also a river running though a tunnel that went under the road. Undeterred and undaunted my dad just stepped into the water, up past his mid calves, and began to wade. We did likewise. Afterall, we were near the end of our midnight journey, and warm slippers were close at hand, and so we all took a deep breath, gasped a little at the waters icy touch and waded through the watery tunnel listening to the cars as they passed overhead. It was one of the most exciting bits of our evening stroll as we sloshed along, stumbling over bits of rusty supermarket trolleys, or buckets, or whatever else had been dumped unceremoniously into the stream.
Ahead of us lay the final challenge of the evening. Here my dad would tell us, in no uncertain terms, to ‘Shhh’, and about now, euphoria would transform into feeling just a little afraid. At the end of the tunnel lay the local police station and we had to pass right through the back of it, to get access to the road and the street. Scottish police do not typically carry guns but they are not a particularly friendly bunch, even at Christmas time, and may not react well to a man and his three young children almost crawling their way past their back door.
We never got caught and once we reached the road, it was only a short walk up the street to our home. However, we were not quite out of the woods yet and my dad would shine one more time in a final scene of imaginative playfulness. A few doors away from our house, he would pretend that we were lost in the dark and that we would have to spend a chilly night outdoors. He was always so convincing that I almost believed him every time, and would feel intense relief wash over me when I suddenly saw the Christmas tree lights in the window, appearing out of the darkness, welcoming us finally home. My mother would be there, at the door, ready to warm us up with hot tea and Christmas cake, and then we would go to bed, grinning from ear to ear, and dreaming of aliens, stars and fences.