My Dad (left) and Uncle John

The Meaning of Christmas

Chris Whitehead
4 min readNov 10, 2019


My Uncle John had the unlikeliest of career trajectories. Originally a bus conductor in Rotherham, he won a Trades Union scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, became a renowned expert on the Bronte sisters and their writing, and finished up headmaster of a public school.

He and my dad fell out long before I was born — over a fiver that my dad had lent John — and didn’t speak for 40 years. Then one day, when my dad was in his seventies, a letter from John dropped on his mat. It was this beautifully written evocation of their childhood. As I read it I imagine him painstakingly bashing it out on his old manual typewriter. I don’t know the precise date in December when it was written, as he typed a “£” symbol instead of the date.

“Dear Sam

Here we are at Christmas again, where does the time go? If anyone should know about Christmas we should. What times we had, what feasting we had, what toys, what fun. How our Mum and Dad managed it I shall never understand, though of course they went without themselves. Always I wanted a Noah’s Ark and every year I got my Noah’s Ark with animals. One year it was wooden folding animals, how I loved those wooden animals. Long after the Ark disappeared I kept the animals in the drawer under the cupboard on the right hand side of the fireplace. The old boiling copper was on the left. Another year I had cast iron animals and on yet another year I had celluloid animals, which were lifelike models but dented and punctured easily. Perhaps best of all was the lovely clockwork Hornby train set. You always wanted a trolley or wheels to make a trolley. One year you got your wish and it was a slatted trolley with a steering bar with ropes attached to the bar. For many years we had a large framed photograph on the wall of a curly light haired boy on a trolley. That’s our Sam.

The lads who came wassailing from Dalton Brook. The snow and Lijah sliding in the street with the kids, half drunk and every time he hit Pashley’s wall at the end of the slide the wall shook and threatened to collapse. Me going to Sunday school and coming home with a bible for a prize on the last Sunday of the year, mad because it was only second prize for attendance and vowing never to go again. That was 1923, I have the bible yet and it says I got 97 marks and I said it was a swizz and a cheat.

My mother roasting the turkey and John Gaunt having Haslett for his breakfast by his own request, roasted in the oven. Our Dick mending the bike in the shed across the yard and me shivering with cold while he kept telling me to hold the candle still and all I wanted was to go back to the fire and my share of the mince pies. Then one year you found the toys before Christmas on top wardrobe (sic) and said, “I told you there wasn’t any Father Christmas” but I went on believing in Father Christmas and still do.

That is the difference between us, you were practical and a realist and I was a dreamer and lived all my life half asleep. Now we are nearly at the end of the line and the doers and dreamers all end up the same way. As our Mam said, “we all come to our cake and milk.” However vainglorious our hopes or dreams it comes to cake and milk and early to bed. Well I often get tired now and I don’t mind. We had good times us two. I’m glad I had Christmas with real holly, a real tree, with Noah’s Ark and Trolleys and Trains; because now they want computers for Christmas.

We shall never slip out for another run on the bike with me or our Kath on the pillion, that adventure, that excitement has gone for good. But we had the world in our time, I do not envy the kids their next seventy years in a world I do not like. Some of the magic is gone because we are no longer young but it’s more than that. I shall spend this Christmas with some of my grandchildren. With four children, eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren Christmas is a busy time but I shall raise a glass to toast my younger brother, who is closer to me than my own skin. God bless thee lad, tha’s a reight good ‘un.

Your ever loving brother


The letter must have spoken to my dad because very soon after he had received the letter I found myself driving him to Moelfre on Anglesey, where my uncle lived in retirement.

I watched with a mixture of wry amusement and open-mouthed astonishment as they embraced, and for the next two years, before my dad died, you would have thought they had never had a cross word.

If Christmas means anything, surely it is reconciliation. Man to God, man to man, brother to brother. Whether your cake and milk is imminent, or far off, there is no better time for making up with someone you love.



Chris Whitehead

Coach, podcaster, writer, and speaker, author of the book Compassionate Leadership