The first and only Christmas I ever spent away from family occurred long ago now. I was 20 and had cast myself on the kindness of English strangers.
The couple I was working for as a nanny took me along with them to relations in Bowerchalke, Wiltshire. We stayed in three cottages joined into a single home, where I learned what living without central heating is like. If you sit by the fire, your front is warm, but your backside can still be frigid.
I remember feeling as if I had been stripped of the essentials of the Christmas season – the warmth and comfort of friends and family, presents and the familiar.
We did get to be spectators at the Christmas Eve Hunt, north of Hindon. It began from the top of the hill and collected about 75 horses. All kinds of riders gathered for a stirrup cup of port with their rosy cheeks and rosy jackets.
With those country accents and Wellington boots, I thought, nothing is more English – except perhaps for the carols I later heard sung in Salisbury Cathedral. That was a treat, too.
But on Dec. 28 I found myself descending from a bus in Camelford, North Cornwall wondering where I was going to spend the night. I had the adventure in mind of visiting King Arthur’s legendary haunt Tintagel. Luckily it wasn’t that hard to find a B&B.
I remember walking down to the sea in rough driving rain and powerful wind. I could not take my eyes off the ocean from all its angles, the island with the monastery and the cliffs with its ruined castle. That morning there was me and the gulls and the clean, free air. How did people live on those massive rocks? I could only compare it to the improbability of some habitation on Cape Split.
The track to the old stone church was pure mud. The parish church, as I learned later, is more than 900 years old. Founded by a Welsh Princess St. Materiana, it had thick, white walls and dark beams.
Inside away from the rain, I met an old woman in her late 80s who showed me the history and then, as it was still pelting rain, took me home to her nearby parish house for sherry, lunch and tea. Her fire dried me out as she talked a blue streak.
She told me about how she’d bred sheep dogs, collecting their fur for spinning into a sweater. I laughed out loud at her story of the vicar who built a phony ruin to hide the vicarage wash from tourists. In that ancient place people were willing to think it was of Saxon origin.
Eventually the rain stopped and I hitchhiked back to Camelford, but I often think of that dear, old lady who took a stranger into her home out of sheer kindness that Christmas season.
This fraught world needs kindness more than ever, especially in the rush to prepare for Dec. 25. There are presents to purchase, cards to write, decorations to be put up, countless celebrations taking place in every town and village, school and church events, dinners to be planned, relatives to embrace, and kids counting down until Santa comes.
This time of year is exciting, particularly when family return home, but nerves do get frayed. This season can be a bit of a roller coaster until the fortunate among us are standing knee deep in wrapping paper, pretty bows and empty boxes.
So, my friends consider the strangers among us. Remember, like my generous benefactor at Tintagel, that kindness matters. Practicing kindness will do much to eliminate the chaos, confusion, and stress of the holiday season. It is the kindness one remembers.