Friday, 1 June 2012

May you have a Merry Christmas


This festive post is a little late, although not as late as you might think. 

It was as I watched my step-dad carrying a Christmas tree through the front door on the 3rd of May that I decided once and for all that my family (myself included) are mad. 

The neighbours looked on pityingly as my mum hung a Christmas wreath to our front door.

"How sad," I imagined them saying behind their net curtains, "that nice lady at number 9 must have lost her marbles."

My 22 year old sister and I hung our Disney stockings on the end of the stairs. We decorated the mantlepiece (and any other surfaces we could find) with lavishings of gold twigs and dark green foliage. As we hung chocolates onto the tree (a few getting mislaid in the process) we caught snatches of mum humming Christmas carols as she busied herself in the kitchen in her snowman apron.

On Saturday evening, with sausage rolls hot from the oven and champagne cocktails lined up on the kitchen table, we had friends round for Christmas Eve drinks.

"Merry Christmas!" they said as we opened the door, greeting them with the smell of mince pies and brandy butter and the sight of a Christmas tree covered in lights and crowned with a red felt reindeer. 

The next morning my sister and I opened our stockings with the squeals of delight usually reserved for seven year olds. A rubber duck tape measure!! A teeny tiny pink alarm clock! Quite frankly, you can never be too old for novelty shaped stockings and ingeniously creative miniature gifts.

This year my family celebrated Christmas on the 6th of May.

As a Christmas gift (yes, we exchanged presents, and ate turkey, and wore paper hats, and read out Christmas cracker jokes and winced at yet another "blind reindeer, no eye deer" corker) I decided to make something for everyone. After ending up looking like Dougal in Father Ted (see picture below) I abandoned my crafty ambitions and wrote them something instead. 

This is what I wrote for my mum, and it explains why we came to be sat around the dining room table carving a turkey in May.

Christmas is Cancelled

Last year, Christmas was cancelled. Two significant things happened. First, my sister moved to Australia. Second, in the middle of October I saw a fir tree being fed into a woodchipper on my street. It seemed a bad omen, and in that instant my festivities were aborted before they were even conceived.

It was our first Christmas that wasn’t the way it always was, and the way I suppose I assumed it would always be.

Until that year Christmas traditions in our family were kept like treasures or secrets. Christmas dinner meant turkey and a very specific accompaniment of trimmings: parsnips (for me), carrots (for colour), potatoes (both mashed and roasted in goose fat), leeks in cheese sauce (extra cheese), bread sauce (extra lumps), cranberry sauce and brussel sprouts, (one forced down by my sister and I, because ‘it’s festive’, the rest consumed happily by my mother). Stockings were hung on our doors long after my sister and I became too old for Father Christmas.

We kept these traditions because, like safely-guarded treasures, we feared that something of great value would disappear if they were lost.

Christmas was a tinsel-trimmed safety blanket that I would pull over my head mid November every year. As long as my sister, my mother and I hung our decorations on the tree together and listened to Michael Bublé crooning about log fires whilst my stepdad played vegetable tetris in the fridge, everything would always be ok.

With my sister halfway around the globe there didn’t seem much point. My mother gave Christmas its ultimatum in an email to my sister and I: “Christmas isn’t Christmas without the four of us, so has been postponed until further notice.”

When December arrived and the lights went up I was almost surprised. Didn’t anyone get the memo? Christmas is off this year. As I sidestepped my way between Christmas shoppers and battled a tied of yellow Selfridge bags on Oxford Street, I felt like a fish drowning in sky.

In the run up to Christmas more than ever before, I felt myself tottering along a tightrope between my childhood and the ephemeral realm of ‘adulthood’. On Christmas Eve, having decorated no tree and sung no carols, I found myself sat at a table amongst my dad’s family, being interviewed by a nine year old.

“How old are you?”

“I’m 19.”

“Does that make you a grown up?”

“I don’t know, what do you think?”

She looked me up and down.

“Well you’re older than me so I think so.”

If only things were so simple.

“She may be older than you,” said the nine year old’s uncle, “but she is still a lot, lot younger than all the other adults here.”

Later in the evening once the children had raced to bed (“the quicker I get to sleep, the quicker Father Christmas will come,”) I sat with the adults and helped them wrap the last presents and stuff satsumas into the heels of stockings.

Someone carried a shiny bike in from the garage. I immediately recalled the pink bike I received on my tenth Christmas, tied with a bow and attached with a tag that read ‘with love from Father Christmas’. I remembered the excitement with which my sister and I had tumbled down the stairs and into the sitting room and my squeals of wide-eyed wonder, “how did Father Christmas fit the bike down the chimney?”

I was sat with the grown ups and sipping the last of my champagne, but I felt like a child. And Father Christmas had just died. In reality, he died years ago, but this was the first time anyone had said it out-loud and the first time I could mourn.

Spending Christmas without Christmas and without my sister felt like trying to bake a cake without eggs and sugar. You can try as hard as you like and you might make something, but it certainly won’t be the Victoria Sponge you imagined.

Our Christmas may have been doomed from the start, but it made me realise that it is the people, not the traditions (however delicious), that matter.  

And, for a household of unashamedly hypocritical atheists, the month is of little importance either. My sister moves back to England next month. When she is home spring buds may be bursting outside, but my family will be sat around the table with Christmas hats on our heads and a turkey roasting in the oven.

In the end, Christmas was only postponed. 


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