I always look forward to Christmas. I’ve been doing it for a long time, pressing my nose against shop windows, gazing at the twinkling lights in town, anticipating the fun and excitement of 25th December. Arguably, anticipation is a huge part of the whole Christmas package, putting up sparkly decorations, buying presents, going to carol services, listening to that Slade song you haven’t heard for a whole eleven months and watching Love Actually again on TV.
We know we’re really lucky to be able to enjoy Christmas as we tuck into that special dinner with our families, as we invariably remember of those who can’t share the joy: there are people in war-torn countries, others living in shop doorways. People have such high expectations of how perfect Christmas time should be that disappointment, loneliness and depression may go unnoticed and unsupported. Charity and kindness to others have always been an integral part of Christmas; in many ways we’re still living in the times of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim Cratchit.
This year could be my first empty nest Christmas and, after years of the festive season being mainly about the kids, planning for twelve months to make the celebrations great for them, the prospect of a silent house can be a strange thing to come to terms with.
If I think about it, Christmas has always been a full-pelt, manic time. I was reminiscing with my brother just the other day about how Christmases used to be when we were kids and it was one of those ‘if you told people nowadays they’d never believe you’ moments. Read on:
When I was about seven, the council moved us into a house. We had a bath, a toilet. Unprecedented luxury. Previously we’d had a moveable tin bath and a shared khazi in a field. Now we had a proper house with three bedrooms and a garden. No heating, no double glazing, no fridge, no phone, no carpets, but it was Buckingham Palace. We slept under coats – no blankets or sheets or duvets – and woke with huge icicles hanging inside the windows but we thought we were in paradise. We lived in the kitchen all year but on Christmas day our Dad bought a precarious paraffin heater and we were allowed to go into the front room to sit on the sofa. A real privilege.
We had very little money. Dad sold his Vincent Black Shadow one year, a motorbike that he should have hung onto, to buy us presents. But we had vegetables in the garden. My brother and I used to be sent out to pick Brussel sprouts in a wind so fiercely cold that our little fingers were numb and frozen to the sprout plant, which we hung onto to stop ourselves from blowing over in the icy blasts. Good times.
Christmas fare was about Mum plucking and gutting the pheasant our father had shot in the nearby woods while Dad uncorked a bottle of Bourbon he’d procured from some fella and drank the lot. We’d sit down to a cooked meal, everyone digging in except me, experiencing early vegan tendencies, refusing to eat something dead and full of lead shot, expecting a slap for being ungrateful or ‘mouthy.’ Then we had to have Christmas pudding although nobody really liked it, and those orange and lemon segment jelly fruits that were still unopened in the wrapper well into January. It was tradition. It’s what people did, and we wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Christmas, once I’d become a parent, was about having a fun family time. I’d cook and bake for days before, take a hamper of goodies (and a bottle of Bourbon) and dinner down to my dad who’d refused to set foot in my house, then go back and start the festivities. My son and I would cook while the others watched the TV; we’d throw all sorts of creative things at the meal: crème de cassis in the gravy, vodka and chestnuts in the sprouts, and have a great time making vegan Yorkshire puddings, hoping they’d rise. Then four of us would sit at the table, pull home-made crackers full of gifts, eat too much and drink a bottle of sparkling wine. Happy memories.
This year my son is in México for Christmas. He’ll have a great time and we’ll catch up on Christmas day for a chat on Skype. It won’t be the same but we can’t hang onto the same for ever. My daughter may come home if she can escape from the excessive workload she has and find a train on Christmas Eve. The offer is on the table: we could prepare food early in the morning, drive down in the campervan, pick her up and have Christmas dinner on the beach. An empty nest means you can do things differently, and I’m learning to relish change.
Next year, we’ve talked about spending Christmas in France. Choices open out like the pages of a new book. One day, I’d love to spend Christmas somewhere warm, although I can’t imagine how it would feel: I’ve been cold in December since year one. But it’s about grasping opportunity. Imagine spending a week in a log cabin with friends, surrounded by snow, fir trees, bears!
It’s difficult, of course, at first, to come to terms with change: Christmas usually means family, tradition, being together, sharing, the same-old. But there’s a nettle to be grasped that might just be a twig on the tree of life. It’s the chance to reinvent. Christmas could become all sorts of things now: camping on the beach, helping out in food kitchens, inviting new people to share hospitality and a log fire, sitting at the top of a mountain with a baked tofu sandwich.
Being privileged is something I’m strongly aware of in this age of food banks and cardboard box homes. This time of year reminds us that we should put something back, and not just at Christmas. But with the opportunity to rethink Christmas and not expect it to be routine and humdrum comes the chance to find a different way of having fun and coming together, to avoid the expense, the narrow expectation and the commerciality.
So perhaps it’s time to dispense with the eye-rolling ‘Oh not this old song again’ and the ‘Oh no: I’ve got the family coming to Christmas and I’ll have to peel all those sprouts’ and start again with the celebration of life, enjoying each day for its sheer pleasure. Christmas can be just that, simple delight, whether you are five or fifty five.
So bring it on, with my very best wishes. Merry Christmas everyone, however you choose to spend it: have a wonderful day and may your 2020 be filled with good health, love and your heart’s desires.