Christmastime is fast upon us, and for many Americans it is an opportunity for spirituality and merriment, family, tradition and fret. Especially fret.
No sooner have Black Friday and Cyber Monday unleashed their discounts, no sooner have what John Willson calls the “walmartians” beamed down to smite one another over half-priced shoot-em-up video games, than a responsible parent begins puzzling out a balance between delighting children with Christmas presents at the risk of inculcating blind materialism in a household already jammed with “stuff.”
Happily, gentle reader, this dilemma can be partly solved—and cleverly so—by a late British Peeress of the Realm with roots in Old Shanghai. But first, the credits.
Countess Patricia Jellicoe (1917-2012) grew up in 1920s Shanghai, the daughter of an Irish Catholic engineer and his French wife who were, so far as anyone knows, the progenitors of this clever Christmas strategy. Herded into a foreigners’ enclave by the invading Japanese in the late 1930s, she and other Britons were traded out for Japanese taken prisoner early in the war. Nazi submarines made it dangerous to send them home to blockaded and hungry Britain and so she spent the war in Beirut; when she arrived there, the nearly six-foot blonde weighed less than 100 pounds. Her valiant parents demanded to stay in captivity, refusing to desert their Chinese friends, colleagues and servants, and almost miraculously they survived the war.
Working for the war effort in Beirut she met and married George Jellicoe, the second earl, whose late father had commanded the British navy in the 1914-1918 war. Her dashing husband was a genuine SAS war hero, flying in and out of Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to support Tito, along with Fitzroy Maclean and others. In the early Fifties, they moved to Washington where her husband served as First Secretary Political at the British embassy, and there they met many future political luminaries including then-Senator Richard Nixon (“weird,” she recalled, “he’d stalk up and down the room orating as if no one else was there,”) and the red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy (“He said he didn’t really know how many Communists there were in the State Department but reporters needed a number so he made one up. I asked how that differed from Hitler’s Big Lie and he was not best pleased with me.”).
After divorcing her philandering husband in the 1960s, a process delayed by her Catholicism but which ended his political career, she was shunned by British royalty and the UK social establishment. So with typical pluck she began her own career as an expert on Asian art and on gardens from Europe to India, China and Japan, on which topics she lectured annually at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Her three-floor Georgian flat in London’s posh Belgravia was packed full of Edo and Meiji screens, Ottoman embroideries and Regency furniture, while her frequent soirees always included the odd Nepalese princess passing through town, experts from the art auction houses, a few BBC correspondents back from trouble-spots, an ex-POW who had escaped from Colditz, Britain’s better historians and similarly fascinating folk.
She rented to me, most affordably, a few rooms in her attic and often regaled me over tea. Occasionally she would get the dates wrong, asking if an ancient Tory grandee, whom I had met as a university student in the 1970s, had met me when he served in Harold Macmillan’s Cabinet when I was aged two at most. But usually her asides were historical show-stoppers: “If I told George once, I told him a hundred times – ‘you’re not having that Donald Maclean stay under my roof!’…Of course we didn’t know at the time that he was a Soviet spy…”
By her eighties she had shed any of the reticence of youth and her tolerance of nitwits was probably never very high. At JFK airport, a customs agent began unwrapping, one after another the identical boxes of Scots shortbread she had brought as gifts: “I rapped my umbrella on his counter and declared, ‘Young Man! If you persist I shall take off all my clothes!’ He panicked, stopped and saluted me.” Waiting to cross the street to the Met, “some stranger began yammering at me, and I worked out that he was offended by my fox stole, the kind with the fox-head on it. He was some kind of animal-rights enthusiast. I picked up the head like a puppet and barked at him repeatedly – bow-wow-wow! His eyes widened and he scampered away in fright. Good riddance, if you ask me!”
One Sunday, after she hobbled back from Mass, she explained how her parents had dealt with the problems of materialism at Christmas. She and her siblings were instructed that Father Christmas would only bring them new toys corresponding to how many of their own old toys that they gave away to poor children. “No old toys for the poor, then no new toys for you!” she explained.
“It was often difficult,” she recalled, “deciding which dolls we could live without, while wanting new toys and realising that poor children often had no toys at all. Later on, I realised that this builds character as well as a sense of sharing or charity. But it was something of a struggle at first.” By the time that I knew her, by God, the old girl had character to spare.
So there you have it; a simple strategy to inculcate self-discipline and charity among the young, while depopulating the overflowing closet or toy-chest. Courtesy of Lady Jellicoe, it is almost as if the Ghost of Christmas Past speaks from China nearly a century ago.
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