I love Christmas.
I think it's mainly the tinsel.
But also the wrapping paper and the crackers and the presents and the
carolling and Harrods and the Queen's Message and the
goodwill-to-all-mankind and the way my home-town Wickley looks in
winter, all tucked up in a white fleece of snow.
My flat-neighbor Johnny Flannery says it's weird for me to celebrate
Christmas, on account of who I am and, more specifically, what I am. He
has a point, I suppose. I'm a fairy. Genus: Perisan peri, or
Perfume-eater. Era: 7th millennium BCE. Mythos: Zoroastrian.
Traditionally, Zoroastrians do Nouruz, we do Sadeh, we do Pateti, we do
six gahambars and eleven Jashans; we do Khordad Sal (the anniversary of
Zarathushtra's birth) and, to even things up, we also do Zartosht
No-Diso (the anniversary of Zarathushtra's death).
We technically don't do Christmas - but look, it's all secular and
commercial now, right? Sure, back in my day, it wasn't all this jolly
mince-pies-and-Tannenbaum stuff. Far from it. In 7000 BCE the
Christ-child himself was a mere twinkle in his father's eye - and a very
faint twinkle at that. We didn't get any decent December festivities
until the Romans invented Dies Natalis Solis Invicti in the early two
hundreds and invited every solar god and his dog to join the fun.
Christmas in the Middle Ages was a good laugh, what with the gambling
and the caroling and the pageants and the rest. But to my mind, nothing
can beat Christmas in twenty-first century London. Maybe it's the vibe.
Maybe it's the festivities. Maybe it's the way families come together,
exchange gifts, and share the year's joys and hardships over eggnog and
Okay, thinking about it, it's probably the tinsel.
Anyway. This - the story that follows - isn't a story about a Christmas
miracle but I feel like it ought to be.
You're welcome to suspend your disbelief.
The night before Christmas, and as it happens something is stirring in
my shitty ten-by-fifteen metre tenement flat: me.
I'm in the middle of making myself a Christmas crown out of foil, glue,
beads and sticky-tape (I saw it on Playschool) when there's a knock on
my door. I unstick myself from the table, the wall, and my own sleeve
and go to find out who it is.
Outside, bouncing from foot to foot in the corridor of our tenements, is
my flat-neighbour Johnny Flannery. You know Johnny: six-foot eleven,
brown, handsome, leather-clad, nominally Irish, with a grin that makes
grannies feel faint and a police record almost as long as his very long
arms. Last seen climbing out your bedroom window with a stereo in one
hand and some Tupperware for the girlfriend in the other - yes, that
Johnny is also sort-of-kind-of my best friend. I'd make a joke about
that, but this is West London and I'm five-foot-flat and ethnic and a
fucking fairy and I've come to be rather grateful for Johnny's company.
And, of course, his loyal silence regarding my supernatural origins.
There's not terribly much you can hide from your neighbour, particularly
when he keeps breaking into your house to watch late-night cable.
"Zeeeem," goes Johnny.
"Johnny," I riposte. Then burp. I've spent much of the afternoon eating
glitter, which I understand is bad for people and also quite bad for
fairies too, but not in the same way. "I suppose you'd like to come
But he already is in, his feet up on my coffee table, his arse on my
couch, and the remote control in the palm of his hand.
"Didn't know if ancient Zoroastrian fairies celebrated Christmas," he
says, digging a hastily-wrapped present out of the pocket of his jacket.
"So, like, if you do, here's something. If you don't, though, I'll 'ave
"I do, ta, Johnny."
"It's a personal organiser," he explains, as I tear away the paper.
Of course it is. I'm always asking him to get me something practical,
and the personal organiser is the very epitome of practical. I switch it
on and check the specs. It has an electronic diary, an alarm, a
calendar, GPS, email and even an inbuilt web browser, which I guess
would be useful if I ever felt masochistic enough to try surfing the net
on a three-inch screen. Admittedly from certain angles it looks a
little like the case Johnny's girlfriend keeps her mascara in (which I'm
certain he did on purpose, one of his less than subtle digs at my
"I figured it'd be useful, like," says Johnny. "On account of you havin'
so many associates to keep up with. Banshees and demons and vampires
and the rest of them types you fairy folk hang out with."
"I'm a veritable supernatural socialite," I agree, scrolling through
Google street view with my thumbs. I might've been born nine millennia
ago, but when it comes to technology I'm totally cutting-edge. I've even
got my own Facebook page. "So where did you steal it from?"
Johnny pulls a face, a face that's now full of the Christmas pudding I'd
left out on the coffee table in case any hungry young carolers came
knocking. "Ah now, Zeem, don't look yer gift horse in his mouth. Where's
yer Christmas spirit?"
I give him a look. My flat is positively redolent with Christmas spirit,
and has been since early November. I'm a fairy, after all; we get
excitable around shiny things. There's not a cupboard or table or chair I
haven't swathed in brightly coloured bunting. Every doorknob is wearing
its very own tiny Santa's hat. My Christmas tree - an eight foot
monstrosity I had to wheel home from Tescos in a shopping trolley - is
bent double underneath the weight of the hundred-thousand odd
decorations I've accumulated over the years and enough tinsel to moor a
warship. (Personally, I think it compares quite favourably to the
charity Giving Tree in Wickley's shopping centre...) Sprigs of mistletoe
sprout somewhat optimistically from the light-fittings.
"Don't you roll yer eyes at me, fairy-boy," Johnny says, one figure
jabbing the bulls-eye of my Rudolf-the-Red-Nosed-Reindeer jumper.
"Cynical folks like you always ferget the true meanin' of Christmas.
Ain't about bleeding tinsel and presents and the like. It's all about
givin' somethin' back to those who need it."
"No, that's the true meaning of your court-ordered community service.
I've done my charity work, thanks. I advised the Giving Tree people on
their tinsel choices-"
Johnny's about to clip me one over the ear when we hear someone yelling
outside - and then, close, too close, the squeal of brakes.
And then a thump.
Johnny and I look at each other.
We're out the door in record time.
The victim of the crash is an old woman. A trio of young hoods stand
dumbly around her body, which is spread-eagled on the pavement like a
clumsy snow-angel. The pooling light of the streetlamps gives this sad
little tableaux a strangely ethereal quality. Ethereal and still.
There's no sign of the car that hit her. Or a sign that help is on its
way. Or a sign that anyone except the hoods have even noticed the woman
on the ground. And at this time of the evening there's few cars on the
road, which is iced up and slippery, and all the shops across the way
have already closed their doors for the holidays.
"Ambulance," I say, puffing up, Johnny a half-step behind me. "Did you
"Course we done," says a hood. "We ain't stupid, mate. They says they'll
be here in a half hour, like, on account of how the traffic's bogged in
round the top end of town. Christmas shopping 'n all."
"Said we had to watch her, like, until they came. So's we is. It's the
charitable thing, innit." This little slice of Dickensian Christmas
spirit comes from the lips of a fat white kid in a yellow hoodie. She
stares down at the crumpled woman and sighs. "God bless the old cunt."
I look down, too. There's no blood. The woman's left arm's sitting at a
funny angle and her chest looks dented, curving inward where it
shouldn't. She's breathing, sort of, little whistles and whispers like a
sleeping child. Her head's wrapped up in one of those patterned scarves
that Russian ladies sometimes wear, and her clothes are quaintly
old-fashioned, layers of gypsy skirts and a belt of chain and flat
With one hand she's clutching a sack that's almost as big as she is.
Gently I bend down and pry away her fingers.
And - because I'm curious - I look inside.
It's filled with presents.
Each one is wrapped up in shiny Christmas paper, with the name and
address of a lucky child pasted to the front.
"Oh, yer kiddin'," says Johnny, who's looking over my shoulder. "Oh. Oh
geez. Oh geez, Zeem. Do you know who that is? I mean, is that bleedin' -
"Yes. Poor woman. I wonder what she's doing out at this time."
"Oh, we know," says Johnny, tapping the side of his nose to intimate a
secret shared. "We know why."
"Sure we do. Old lady with a bag full of presents..." If he intimates
any harder he might take a nostril off. "Not that hard to guess who it
is, is it?"
"Guess who - oh."
I don't know the specifics of the British school syllabus, but I do know
that there's a big focus on cultural diversity. I expect that Johnny
has heard the stories of Babushka, that he's familiar with the old
Russian woman in a headscarf, a sack of presents over her shoulder,
chasing the Christ-child from house to house with the tenacity of an
"That's nice, Johnny," I say uneasily. "But actually-"
"You know what we got to do now, don't you? We got to deliver 'em."
Johnny bounces, energized.
"What?" I look at the hoods, hoping for a sensibly derisive teenage
response, but the hoods are already looking at Johnny - tattooed, six
foot eleven, serial offender Johnny Flannery - and have appeared to come
to the consensus that this man is a Role Model.
"Christmas spirit," they chime. "'Tis the reason for the season."
"Please, Johnny. If it was any other day of the year you'd be going
through her wallet for her credit cards. It"ll take us ages to find
these people, anyway. Do I look like I know where..." I check a present.
"...Holsbury Street in Upper Wickley is off the top of my head?"
Johnny nudges my arm, and I realise I'm still holding my personal
"Don't you got a GPS on that thing, mate?" he asks, grinning.
So, on the night before Christmas, when I should be at home eating
glitter and watching the BBC's Carols from Kings, I am instead tramping
up the streets of Wickley behind a convicted felon and three
probable-felons-to-be. I'm not really sure why I'm doing it, only that
Johnny is very persuasive and also very tall. And maybe I feel a tiny
bit guilty, too. I'm a creature of goodness and light and happiness, but
tonight my conscience has been upstaged by the humanitarian instincts
of a bunch of local thugs.
We've left the Russian lady in the hands of the paramedics. (They say
she'll pull through, which I can tell Johnny's having a hard time not
declaring a Christmas miracle). The first address on our Christmas list -
for a present Johnny's carefully selected by the age-old method of
lucky dipping - is on Mercy Street. According to the GPS, this is a
casual five minute stroll away for someone who's six foot eleven and
fit, and a horrible five minute sobbingpantingstumble away for someone
who's five foot flat and has a belly full of glitter.
But it's too much to hope the others will slow down for me. Johnny,
striding along with a sack of presents slung over his shoulder, is
unmistakeably a man on a mission; the hoods follow in his footsteps like
loyal pages after their Good King Wenceslas.
I catch up with the group as Johnny's knocking on the front door, the
present - a medium-sized rectangular box in pink sparkly paper - tucked
under his chin. I'm about to voice my misgivings about blindly handing
out mysterious boxes to small children, when a middle-aged woman wearing
a Santa's hat and a tinsel boa appears at the ingress. Her face fairly
sours when she sees who's on her doorstep.
"Hello," says Johnny, whose Christmas spirit appears indefatigable. "I'm
'ere to deliver-"
"Wait." The woman squints. "Aren't you the Irish bastard who stole my
Playstation last month?"
Johnny is politely disarming. "I 'ave brought a present for yer
daughter. A very merry Christmas to you, ma'am."
The woman is pushing up her sleeves, a very unmerry scowl on her face,
when a grubby little girl appears at her hip. Johnny's gaze shifts from
mother to daughter; he bends from his great height until he and the girl
are at eye level.
"Are you Fei Ling?" he asks.
The child wrinkles her face. "Yes," she says.
"Then this is for you," says Johnny graciously, and places the present
into Fei's small hands.
"Don't you open that," says her mother automatically, but her plea falls
on deaf ears. Fei is already ripping off the paper. Amongst the
immutable truths I've learnt in my long existence is the fact it is not
physically possible to separate a small child from an unwrapped
Christmas present. Rankled, the mother turns her attention back to
"Flannery, isn't it?" she says. "Aren't you meant to be in jail?"
"Doin' community service this time," says Johnny. "On account o' me good
"Good behavior? Community service?" The mother snorts. "Well I tell you
now, Johnny Flannery, you ain't done this community any favours. You
theivin' shit, that Playstation cost us good money."
"Mummy, look. It's a Barbie," says Fei.
"Can't we let bygones be bygones?" Johnny tries, smiling the winning
smile I've personally witnessed turn a one year sentence into six
"'Tis the reason for the season," chime the hoods, a little more
uncertainly this time.
"I should call the cops on you right now."
"Mummy-Mummy-Mummy-MUMMY, it's a Barbie, MUMMY!"
Fei's mother looks down finally at her child, who is fairly windmilling
the plastic doll to get some parental attention.
"Oh," she says, softening a little. "It's the one you wanted, isn't it?
What are you going to call her?"
"Barbie," says Fei, in that tone that says: Don't you know anything,
Mum? "Her name is Barbie."
Johnny, a man with well honed get-away skills, chooses this moment to
start inching away from the door. The hoods follow his lead; and soon
we're all half-way down the street, back-patting and grinning and
congratulating each other for a job more-or-lessly well done... and for
the life of me, I can't help but get swept up in their good cheer.
What's more Christmasy, after all, than bringing toys to small children?
"Okay, fairy-boy, where are we off to next?" says Johnny, flicking his
fingers at my belly and Rudolf-the-Red-Nosed-Reindeer's nose. "We got a
big night ahead of us."
"Wait, there's at least thirty presents in there," I say, my good cheer
faltering at the thought of the very long roads ahead of us, and the
very short legs I have to traverse with them. "We really can't-"
But Johnny's already lucky-dipped another present from his sack. "Number
8 Hemmingway Close!" he declares, as the hoods cheer. "Ain't that just
past the pub?"
I am, as I've mentioned, nine millenia old and I'm used to seeing
history repeat itself, practically ad infinitum (and certainly ad
nauseum). There's a saying that goes: there are no new stories ever
written, and I feel now, more than ever, like we're walking along a path
already well-trodden. But Christmas has always been about traditions
and signs and the curious little things mortals do to make sense of a
world too bloody complicated for them to ever understand.
Babushka's story is, of course, a story about apologies. When the three
kings of the Nativity invite Babushka to join them as they follow their
star-of-wonder, Babushka has other things to do. Her house needs
cleaning, the floors must be scrubbed, food must be cooked and, most
importantly, she needs to find the right gift for the Christ-child. (And
what do you buy for the son of a god, really?) And while Babushka
procrastinates, the Christ-child slips away from her; he is gone by the
time she finally reaches Bethlehem, her ungiveable gift clutched to her
Babushka is still looking for him. She sublimates her guilt for failing
him by leaving presents for other children - it is a sort of penance. A
community service, in fact, that's very much like the one Johnny does
every Monday, Tuesday, and Friday.
And, of course, the community service he's performing now.
There's a light snow falling as we walk the streets of Wickley - the
kind of light snow you often see peppering the outermost branches of
Christmas card Christmas trees, or sprinkled across the roofs of
barn-yards and farm houses in pastoral idylls. (Not the usual sort of
snow we get in Wickley, which predominantly comes in slush.) Johnny's
taught the hoods the dirty versions to some classic holiday favourites;
they carol away merrily, the yellow hoodie taking the high notes that
the two boys can't reach.
Like Babushka before us, we do our rounds. This little boy gets a fire
engine. This little girl, hiding behind her father, gets a book about
origami. That family gets a hamper of small gifts: bits and pieces for
the Christmas tree, a couple of CDs, and that special Tescos Christmas
pudding that no one but visiting uncles eat. This little girl gets an
astronaut's helmet. That little girl gets a DVD of early Star Trek
episodes, and gives us a traditional Vulcan salute as we leave.
After a dozen or so successful present deliveries, Johnny starts to
regale the hoods with his unique take on the Christmas mythology.
"Parents invented Santa so's little kids wouldn't know where presents
came from," he explains, in the most paternal of tones. "He's sort of
like god, right, only fer little baby Christians."
"Actually," I say, still lagging behind the pack, "Santa is generally
associated with Woden, who's pure heathen."
Johnny frowns, but rallies on. "Anyway, y'know how God 'as angels,
right? Well, Santa 'as little elves instead fer helpin' him-"
"Not in the Netherlands," I say. "In the Netherlands he's got a helper
called Zwarte Piet who cheerfully beats the shit out of kids on the
naughty list. And in parts of Eastern Europe he used to have the
Krampus, who wear black masks and drag chains which they throw at
"And it's called Xmas on account o' how Jesus were nailed to a great big
X," Johnny snaps.
"No, Johnny," I say automatically, "It's called Xmas because in Greek
and Roman, X is the first letter of the word Christ."
The hoods look suspiciously between us. Trying to work out who's telling
the truth - which, frankly, as both a mythological creature and someone
without a police record, I find rather offensive.
Surprisingly it's Johnny who breaks the tension.
"I ain't no expert," he says mildly, tossing a sparkly-pink present in
his hand. "You should listen a Zeem 'ere. He's always got 'is facts
straight on this sort o' stuff. I reckon I'll stick wit' gift-givin',
He double-checks the address on the back of the present, then trots off
to knock on a door. The hoods, still playing page, aren't far behind
I watch them do their Babushka business from the pavement. Johnny is a
thief and the hoods are a bunch of little bastards who've a reputation
for ringing doorbells in the middle of the night, writing misspelled
graffiti on people's fences and pissing in public places. This is their
pilgrimage, not mine; their chance to give back. And yet what they're
doing here, as we walk from house to house, seems less like a penance
than an impulse.
Sure they're doing good in the Christmas tradition - in, specifically,
Babushka's tradition - but it doesn't fit in my head in the neat way I'd
prefer it to.
We deliver the last presents to a pair of snotty-nosed twins just
outside the town centre; they squeak happily and hug the yellow hoodie.
Their father invites us in to sample his home-made eggnog, but it's
getting close to midnight now and the hoods have parental curfews. We
say our goodbyes before the hoods think to serenade the twins with a
Our route back to the tenements takes us down main street, where the
lamp posts are swathed in red tinsel like barber's poles and every shop
window is printed with a Merry Christmas decal. (Naturally the French
bakery's reads: Joyeux Noel.) The pavements are crowded with people
returning from late church services and the annual carols by candlelight
held in Wickley's community centre. Johnny, who's always got an eye for
an opportunity, nicks someone's wallet and uses the cash in it to buy
the hoods a kebab each.
Then the yellow hoodie finds some mistletoe hanging from a street sign
and gets in a snog with the better-looking of the two hoods. And the
less attractive male hood carves his name into a bus time table with a
Johnny and I leave them to it and walk home through the snow, which is
looking slushier by the minute. At my place, Johnny flips through
repeats of Carols from Kings while I potter off to the kitchen to pour
him a glass of brandy and myself a glass of Chanel No. 5.
"You know all that present-giving doesn't count as community service,
right?" I say, returning with drinks.
Johnny shrugs. "I know."
"Then why do it?"
"Dunno. Why wouldn't I?"
I look at Johnny for a long time.
"Merry Christmas, Johnny," I say eventually. "Thank you for being my
"Merry Christmas, Zeem," says Johnny. "Thank you fer bein' mine."
We clink glasses. We drink. And I don't wince, even though I want to.
I'll admit it freely: I'm nine millennia old and I still haven't gotten
used to the indignity of being taught life lessons by humans.
Especially not on bloody Christmas day.
This story has an ending, but it's not magical or miraculous.
Three days after Christmas, Johnny and I go to the hospital. We've got a
patient to see, and a Christmas miracle to verify. Patient visiting
hours are almost up, but tall, dark, handsome Johnny manages to flirt
his way past two duty nurses and a janitor without too much trouble.
We find our Babushka in the private wing. As we enter her room, she
starts awake, and the monitor at her side peep-peep-peeps like a hungry
chick. Her heartbeats zigzag irregularly on the screen. An elaborate
pulley system is keeping her bandaged left leg raised; her right arm has
a plaster cast. Without her patterned scarf she doesn't look
particularly Russian. She's just a small, broken woman. She looks like
no one special at all.
"Are - are - " the broken woman begins, rubbing her eyes, but Johnny
puts a finger to his lips to quiet her.
"Hullo, Missus B," he says. "Don't you bother getting' up on my account.
I jus' came by to say that you ain't got nothin' to worry about. With
the presents. Me n' my friends, we delivered 'em. All them kids got
their presents. So don't worry 'bout a thing, you hear? You concentrate
on restin' yourself and getting better."
The broken lady's face crinkles in confusion. I put a hand on Johnny's
arm before he can go in for an over-friendly, over-Christmasy hug of
"You should probably head off now, Johnny," I whisper. "I'll take it
from here. The lady Babushka and I have things to talk about. One
mythological being to another."
"Oh, aye," says Johnny, intimating with his finger again. "I'll meet you
outside then, fairy-boy. G'bye, Missus B."
He strides out, a hero's exit, ducking ever so slightly to clear the
door frame. The broken woman and I watch him go.
"It's Kazeem, isn't it?" asks the broken woman finally. "I remember you
helped us some with setting up the Giving Tree. You had opinions about
"That's right," I say. "And that was my friend Johnny Flannery. It's
okay, he's nothing to worry about. He got out of Wandsworth for good
"Did he really deliver those presents? I should thank him. I think
everyone needs to thank him."
"Ah, no. I think it might be better if you didn't."
"What do you mean?"
An unfortunate side effect of my fairy biology means I've an awful time
trying to lie, but that doesn't mean I can't prevaricate with the best
"Johnny's an unassuming kind of man, Mrs. Edgeworth," I say. "Wouldn't
want anyone to make a fuss of him."
"I was worried someone might have stolen all the gifts," says Mrs.
Edgeworth, leaning back on her pillows. The pulley system creaks in
relief. "What a disaster that would be! Especially considering how much
support the Giving Tree got this year. Dozens of presents donated. Those
poor unfortunate children would have been so disappointed-"
"Quite," I say. "Lucky we had Johnny Flannery, eh?"
On the way out I stop at the hospital gift shop to browse their
assortment of fluffy bears and balloons and plastic flowers and other
Get Well Soon paraphernalia. I'm not going to tell Johnny about Mrs.
Edgeworth and the Giving Tree, of course. I want Johnny to have the
dream of saving Christmas, but I also I owe him a real gift, something a
little more solid than bloody Christmas spirit. Call it an impulse, or
maybe just plain old peer pressure...
'Tis the reason for the season, and all that.