Things have changed a lot since we moved here in 1994, and perhaps nothing has changed quite as much as the festive season. Our first Christmas came hard on the heels of the move from England at the end of September, and the time of year was a stark, grim contrast to what we had been accustomed to.
True, we were in the thick of culture shock, I was only a few weeks away from giving birth, our children were still only aged three and two, and we were feeling fairly worn out and ratty. Even so, trekking up to town to do the Christmas shopping was a less than cheering experience. Our supermarket, where Tesco now stands, was Presto, and its idea of late night opening was 6pm – on a Friday only. Everything else was closed by 5.30. Driving through the dark streets, not a Christmas decoration or light to be seen, made us feel miserable and homesick. What had we done?
I remember standing in despair in the wine aisle, searching for a bottle of bubbly to celebrate Christmas – something we had always done before. In the end, a friend sent us a bottle of champagne from the mainland, as we couldn’t buy it here.
We did our best, but I remember feeling beleaguered and depressed by the whole thing. My best friend, who had just made the move from Lancashire to Tain, joined us for Christmas, and I don’t think we gave her a very good time. The house felt cold, the TV reception was atrocious and tempers were short.
The second Christmas, a ton of snow fell – I don’t think there’s anything as beautiful as the Outer Hebrides blanketed in white, the extraordinary pink and purple-tinged skies and the sparkle of pure reflected light on the snow. One of my most vivid memories is walking my almost one year old son up the road in the dark, holding one hand while his other tried to catch and understand the snowflakes swirling around him.
The spectacle of snow did much to compensate the two-day power cut we endured, which fell on Christmas day in the morning and lasted until the afternoon of Boxing Day. Determined not to be phased by a lack of electricity – which meant no cooker – I made my one and only attempt to cook the Christmas turkey over the fire. Don’t ever even think of trying this – I don’t know why I did. It tasted of coal.
Over the succeeding years, things got better. I remember the first time there was a ceremony to turn on the Christmas lights in town – with carols and a little band playing. The shops opened late, the lights twinkled and it felt, at last, like Christmas. One year, there was a giant inflatable Santa climbing the clock tower on the Town Hall, the source of much controversy and letter-writing to the Gazette. The supermarkets went through their incarnations from Safeway to Morrisons to Somerfield to Tesco. Late night opening became a six-day a week thing, starting at 8pm and working ever upwards. Champagne and Cava appeared on the supermarket shelves.
The drive home from town was cheered by an increasing number of homes displaying Christmas decorations – for a few years, there seemed to be a competition going on in Balallan for who could put up the best show.
Nowadays, carol singing is not as controversial as it was the first time I heard it in Pairc school. The music teacher played valiantly at the piano, the children sang, and the parents and families were encouraged to join in. It was immediately and uncomfortably apparent that for some in the hall, the carolling children might as well have been singing dirty rugby songs. Away in a Manger split the gathering, into those who would sing and those who would not – in a manner reminiscent of the way Gaelic was to divide the school a few years later.