Like so many once-familiar things that now seem so different to 120,000 striking British miners, Christmas in the coal country has become just one more emotional barrier to get behind them.
"It gets a bit tough at Christmas," said Ron Rogers, a 29-year-old miner, "when you see people who have gone back to work and have money to spend. But once I get through Christmas, then I feel I could keep up forever," he said of the strike, now in its 10th month. The strike is the longest and most violent in British history, and it shows no sign of ending.
At the Miners' Welfare League here and in scores of other mining communities, truckloads of toys collected by French and Belgian workers are distributed to miners' children whose fathers have now lost about $8,000 in wages since the walkout began last March and whose families, on average, are getting by on about $35 a week or less in social security benefits and handouts.
The strike, in which the miners are opposing the state-run National Coal Board's plan to close 20 money-losing and heavily subsidized pits out of 175 in Britain, has not personally inconvenienced the vast majority of Britons.
There have not been and probably will not be any power shortages or shutdowns, in part because about 60,000 miners are working. But its bitterness tears steadily into the social fabric of this country.
It produces almost daily scenes of violence between pickets and police. The unrelenting conflict between a government determined to curb the power of militant unions and mine union leaders equally determined not to give in provides a background that escalates the stakes of other disputes and has given British politics an especially sharp, confrontational tone since the walkout began.
"We got 10 pounds of beef each from some group in Holland and a capon from others in southern England," said Ken Tye, a 15-year mine veteran, about the food parcels distributed here on Christmas Eve by the Women's Action Group of miners' wives. These women's groups have become perhaps the most important factor in maintaining both a more balanced diet and some semblance of normality for the families of strikers.
At Alfreton, about 30 miles south of here, Ken Edwards, a mine union branch official, said his teen-age sons are old enough "to understand" his battle and are not bothered by not having gifts.
"Miners have always been known to spend it as soon as they get it, to have a good time. But if we get over Christmas, I feel they'll be with us all the way," he said of those still on strike.
"There's no way to recover the money, but it's better to struggle for 12 or 18 months than for the rest of your life," he said of the need for a miners' victory.
Whatever side people take in the dispute, the strike tears most sharply at these mining communi- ties and miners' families in the British Midlands.
Nigel Parker is 23 and for seven years has been a miner like his father, a 30-year veteran in the pits. Just before Christmas, Parker left the family home forever, he said at the miners' club here, because his father, under financial strain, had decided to go back to work. The coal board had been offering pre-Christmas bonuses and in the month before the holidays, about 16,000 miners went back to work.
"If he can't stand by me," Parker said of his father, "he can't stand by nobody."
"I've got family members now that I'll never speak to again," added Lew Lawton, a striking miner whose son, two brothers-in-law and uncle have now gone back to work.
The pitched battle is between the coal board and the Conservative, tough-minded prime minister, Margaret Thatcher on one hand, and the fiery, Marxist leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, on the other. The confrontation has been dubbed a second "Battle of Britain" because of the stakes for the future of British industrial relations and the fight-to-the-death quality of it, as in World War II.
Indeed, last week, the chief of Britain's 10-million-member Trades Union Congress, Norman Willis, warned that the strike could last "not for weeks and months more, but for years" because despite the pre-Christmas drift back to work, there are "tens of thousands" who will not go back without a negotiated pact.
That is why the Battle of Britain tag is accurate and why Christmas is so important as perhaps the final test of the stamina of the strikers.
In an emotional appearance last month before Britain's House of Lords, the 90-year-old former Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan said, "It breaks my heart to see what is happening" in Britain. "A terrible strike is being carried on by the best men in the world. They beat the kaiser's army and Hitler's army. They never give in." But, he added in a widely shared view, "the strike is pointless and endless. We cannot afford it."
This month, the mass-circulation Daily Mirror newspaper also used the imagery of leading courageous men into certain disaster by a dramatic depiction of Scargill leading a modern version of the Charge of the Light Brigade that carried British officers and soldiers senselessly "into the valley of death" as the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson puts it.
One 28-year-old miner, who asked not to be named, said he was "going back after the new year. I've had enough of no proper food." But Tye said what many strikers now seem to believe -- that the "majority of those who are going to go back to work have gone back."
What adds to the imagery of a battle to the death here is that the striking miners, their cause and their leader have become increasingly isolated, something that would seem likely to break their will but which, judging from what they say, seems only to increase their already considerable tenacity.
Public opinion polls show steadily increasing majority support for the government and coal board case that so-called "uneconomic" pits should be closed. The polls also show that only about 12 percent believe Scargill is handling the strike well.
From the outset, about 45,000 of Britain's 180,000 miners have refused to strike because Scargill called the walkout without a national ballot. Now, a few working miners have emerged as new local leaders and taken the union to court in what they say is an effort to bring democracy back to the coalfields.
They have won a series of decisions that tightened a legal and financial noose around the national union, preventing it even from using its $11 million in assets to pursue the walkout.
Despite verbal support from other unions and the opposition Labor Party, the miners have received no solid backing from either corner, in part because of the failure to hold a national ballot and in part because there already are more than 3 million unemployed Britons -- 13.2 percent of the work force.
Scargill's tactics and the violence on the picket lines, which he has refused to condemn and which he blames on the police, have bolstered Thatcher's standing in the polls. They have also provided what many politicians here believe is ammunition for Thatcher to make her case that the more demanding unions must be brought into line if Britain is to become competitive again.
The strike has already cost Britain about $2.4 billion in lost revenues and extra police costs and has shaved almost 1 percent off Britain's gross national product this year.
But things look different from the coal communities. The police have become a hated group. Miners say the police provoke a lot of violence and commit a lot of it but that no one wants to believe it because of the venerable image of the British policeman and because the press doesn't report it.
"I got one living next door to me and I never want to speak to him again," Lawton said. On picket lines, he charged, "they spit at us and as soon as you say anything, you got the cuffs on and away you go."
"They intimidate us," Tye added. "They swear, push us around and tell us how much money they make." Several miners here said they have seen police "kneeing and punching women" pickets and "then bragging about it," Lawton claimed.
The miners here are all in debt. No rents or mortgages or big bills have been paid for 10 months. Edwards said he owed $700 rent, $500 on his car and $225 to the furniture store. "So far, the mortgage company has been brilliant," Lawton said. "No threatening letters or nothing. But if it came to a point where I might lose my home, then I'd have to seriously think about going back," he said.
But most, like Edwards, say there must be "victory if we are to have some future for ourselves and our children." When a pit closes, he said, there is no place else to go, no one to buy a home in a ghost town.
"When a mine closed five or 10 years ago," he said, "there were other factories in this community to go to work at. Engineering, knitwear, cosmetics." But the decline of Britain's industrial heartland and unemployment have removed those other work places, he said, so there are high social costs now from closing mines.
Closing 20 pits would remove about 20,000 jobs. The government has offered about $1,200 for each year a miner has worked as a payoff for voluntary early retirement. There are reported to be at least that number who would accept those terms, but Edwards called the payoff amount "pathetic."
He believes, as do most strikers, that there would be much larger layoffs later. In his view, the Thatcher government is really trying to shrink the mining industry down to a relatively few highly profitable mines and then sell the whole nationalized industry, as it has many other previously state-run firms including, most recently, the telephone company. "But she can't do that until she destroys the National Union of Mineworkers first," Edwards said.
The hatred in the government for Scargill is matched in the field by the hatred of the striking miners for Thatcher. "She is nothing but a dictator," said Edwards. "She hates the whole trade union movement and is out to destroy it."