By Hilary White

Hilary WhiteTATTENHALL, Cheshire, UK ( – The bells for the Christmas Eve service are ringing in the 16th century bell tower of the Anglican parish church in the little village in West Cheshire where I moved three months ago. The day has been dark and drizzly and chilly as only a northern English winter day can be. Despite the weather, though, an inescapable atmosphere of joy and anticipation can be found in this little country village. People here obviously love Christmas.

There is nothing like a little English village at Christmas (even when we are still waiting for some snow). We have had our outdoor carolling service on the common, the children’s Christmas pageant at St. Alban’s, the Pantomime (Cinderella this year), and the village shops (all six of them) are decorated with the peculiar English custom of hanging a miniature Christmas tree above the door. The village butcher was thronged with people buying their turkeys; the little post office was queued to the door all week. Every house and cottage sports lights and a tree in the window and the people congregate outside the news agent’s chatting merrily in their musical Cheshire country accents over the baby pushchairs.

There is even a man who comes into the village, to visit the post office and the pub, in that order, who drives in on a little pony cart, parking the horse and buggy outside the chemist where a mounting block and hitching post are still in use.

This will be my second Christmas in England, the last one 35 years ago when I was just a child, living in Manchester with my mother’s family. It is to that family that I turned again after my mother’s death from cancer in June this year. But despite the country village idyll, Britain is a far, far different place from what I remember.

My young cousins, ages seven, eight, ten and eleven, all have their own mobile phones, electronic toys, DVD’s, video games and new clothes, a level of material abundance that was extremely rare in my childhood and totally unimaginable to my mother who was raised under post-War rationing. But there is something crucial missing for them. They have things, more things than I can keep up with, but can they appreciate them?

The boys play football (soccer to our North American readers) as English boys have always done, but there is a strange feeling that things are not what they ought to be, that their lives are somehow imaginatively diminished. They do not know the things that boys are supposed to know and they don’t care about the things boys should care about. They do not build tree forts; they do not long for a pair of binoculars or a compass or a pocket knife; they do search for owls’ nests, or play at pirates; they do not climb trees or pretend to be explorers or knights, even Jedi knights. They collect conkers in the autumn, but they do not know how to play with them. They hunch over little bleeping video game boxes and stare at the telly.

Britain has been grasped by a strange invisible claw of materialism, political correctness and ultra-statism. Children can no longer take donkey rides at the beach, something I remember fondly from my own Blackpool childhood holidays, for fear of lawsuits. In many places, the age-old custom of “playing conkers” with horse chestnuts on strings, has been outlawed as “too dangerous.”

When I was a child, my favourite holiday was Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, in which English people gather round a great outdoor fire, bob for apples, let off fireworks and burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes who had been the ringleader in the Gun Powder Plot 400 years ago. This best of outdoor autumnal adventures has been banned by many local councils in England on the incredible grounds that it, being a specifically English custom, it may “offend” immigrants who do not share its history. And besides, fireworks are dangerous and the nanny state can’t let people risk injuring themselves.

The train system in Britain, once the envy of the western world, is entirely shut down from Christmas Eve to after Boxing Day. It seems that although upwards of 20 million Britons will take to the road, the trains and buses cannot be expected to run.

It is this multitude of seemingly little things, the incremental shutting down of what was once the proud, sturdy, unsophisticated homeliness of British daily life, together with the astonishing statistics on abortion, divorce, cohabitation, youth crime, binge drinking, and the collapse of the once-enviable education system, that make me wonder if there will “always be an England.”

The breakdown of British society has been much in the news since I arrived. It seems that I came home just in time to participate in the Great British Identity Crisis. Who are we and why are we here? I noted that since I had been gone, it seemed that the British people had forgotten how to live, what to do with themselves and how to order their lives. The church bells still ring, for now, but no one seems to heed them.

But it is the Christmas bells that hold the answer to the great problem.

Today I listened to the message, broadcast for the first time on television in 1957, from the lovely young Queen Elizabeth II for Christmas. Fifty years ago, the Queen, reputed by all to be sharp as a tack and nobody’s fool, knew what was happening. She said that with all the changes in day to day life, ” I am not surprised that many people feel lost and unable to decide what to hold on to and what to discard.”

She urged her subjects to ” take advantage of the new life without losing the best of the old” and had little time for the “cynics” who would have Britons “carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery.”

“They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless, honesty counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint.”

Her Majesty summed up what can be taken now as a simple and straightforward solution to the crisis of British life. It is easy. Re-acquire those virtues that were indeed so carelessly thrown away. It is not difficult. The church bells still ring. The little village churches are still there. The truth is still there. Christmas is still there, under the heaps of cheap toys and plastic decorations. Find out what it is, Who it is, and pursue it with all our strength and the Britain of legend will come back. It is not a commodity, it cannot be bought. But it can live in the doing if we decide to do it.

To all our readers in this country and all the others, who have come with us in the last year in our efforts to preserve and revive the great truths,

Merry Christmas.