My favourite Christmas song is by Chris Rea. You know the one. Rea’s voice, sounding like the erratic spurt of an automatic coffee machine somewhere halfway up the M1, sings:
Driving home for Christmas / Oh, I can’t wait to see those faces.
The first thing that sets the song apart is that it’s ambiguous – cryptic, even, in a way that Cliff’s mistletoe and wine or even The Pogues’ domestic melancholy isn’t.
We assume Rea is speeding up the motorway to see his family – a wife, perhaps, or some gap-toothed kids who’ll climb all over him the moment he walks through the door with snow still stuck to his coat – but we don’t know for sure. They’re just called ‘faces’.
It's an odd moment in the whole Christmas experience Rea has chosen to capture here. Not the actual day itself, or even a broad sense of ‘the season’, but the anticipation of Christmas, the unstoppable journey towards it.
Well I'm moving down that line / And it's been so long / But I will be there / I sing this song / To pass the time away
The man in the car is so anxious, he is singing to himself. And though he claims to be excited, can’t we detect just the faintest note of apprehension in his voice?
Is the ‘home’ Rea is hurtling towards a small town or village he left long ago? Are the ‘faces’ he can’t bring himself to name ones he isn’t sure he really wants to see?
For Rea, is the excitement of Christmas tinged with a trepidation tempting him, beneath the cheerful façade, to veer his car off the nearest bridge and plunge to an icy death?
I think the answer is yes.
Because to me, 'Driving Home For Christmas' is a song for those of us still caught between our first families and our second, who are grown up but as yet without partners or children of our own.
Take the inevitable night out on the town every trip home for Christmas entails. For every catch-up-pint with an old mate and the accompanying delight – usually three drinks in – of realising that nothing has really changed and your friendship is rock solid, there is the moment you catch eyes at the bar with a ghost.
A ghost, of course, is someone from the past who returns to haunt you – in this case a 6’ 3”, bleary-eyed caricature of a teenage boy whose name you can’t recall, but who insists on filling you in on the various melodramas – divorce, lay offs, medical complications related to ecstasy abuse – that have afflicted him in intervening years, as you stand there wobbling with recollections of how he and his friends once threw stones at you outside Carlo’s chippy for no good reason.
Or worse – a woman whose heart you thought you once broke, looking beautiful in the way that only a woman who has outgrown you and moved onto better things can, telling you how they’re a lawyer now, engaged to a doctor, living somewhere in Kent. Faces.
Top to toe in tail-lights / Oh, I got red lights on the run
Then there is the inevitable solo stroll you take, just to get away from it all for an hour, through the streets you once roamed as a sullen teenager.
Last Boxing Day, when I embarked on this particular nostalgic pilgrimage, I opted to go past my junior and middle schools, just to see what sort of memories they could still conjure.
When I got there, both buildings lay in ruins: the first, a gaping wound of soil waiting to be covered with a block of flats, the second, long-since disused for educational purposes, burnt to the ground in an act of bored local vandalism.
An extreme example. But piece by piece your childhood is being desecrated by indifferent agents of progress: makeshift football pitches turned to tarmac, sweet shops morphed into Subways, back alleys you once hid down to get drunk transformed into smooth-stoned office blocks.
Soon there'll be a freeway / Get my feet on holy ground
Your past moves on without you, and so it should. But Christmas, for those us still trapped between your first family and the one you’re supposed to start anew, is a time when there is nothing else to do but confront that change in all its discombobulating strangeness.
The joy – and in some ways the torture – of this time of year is that it places you in a time loop, both collectively via the same old songs and films that play over and over, and personally, by the routines and conversations you re-enact for three or four days every year with your family. Christmas, in its repetition, is our national period of self-reflection. And sandwiches.
And while, I imagine, one of the many joys of starting a family of your own is setting the terms of that time loop yourself, building a version of Christmas that your children will accept and enjoy unconditionally for as long as they are children, for those of us still stuck in life’s middle ground, Christmas is about straddling both the pleasures and perplexities of the past.
But don’t worry. As Chris Rea, author of the greatest ever Christmas song points out, whatever our experience this time of year, we’re not alone.
I take look at the driver next to me / He's just the same / Just the same…