I’m finally getting straight after a busy Christmas, and thinking about how family Christmas traditions develop. It must be the heightened sense of occasion, the something-specialness of a time which is associated with Santa Claus and wishes coming true – the letter up the chimney which brings all you ever dreamed of.
I’m a Christmas cynic to some extent, and have been since the age of 4 or 5 when I realised that the meagre pile of presents at the foot of my bed on Christmas morning was exactly the same as I’d already foraged through and clumsily re-wrapped a week before, parcels ‘hidden’ by my mother. She had other things to worry about, just the two of us in a crumbling Victorian semi with not much money and, in her case, poor health. A story for my misery memoir perhaps.
Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of Christmas which still hold magic for me, as for most of us. Getting the family together, complete with excited little people, seeing faces light up when presents are unexpected or particularly special, or funny. I love singing carols, and having the excuse to light candles, and seeing the beautiful tree ornaments which we’ve collected over nearly half century. I still get a kick out of setting up our nativity Crib, with its little peg-doll figures, including the ‘Baby Cheesus’ in his manger, made when our firstborn was a baby in his carry-cot. And fairy-lights – I adore fairy lights, the more the merrier.
But Christmas raises mixed emotions for me, probably because it sometimes doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Even when I moved in with my Dad in my early teens and got sacks full of lovely presents, and had great parties with his family, there was always the feeling that it wouldn’t last, and there would be drawbacks. And there were of course – when I was mature enough to pick up the irritations and conflicts which affect the relationships of adults. I also learned about Boxing Day hangovers, not just from over-indulgence, but also from when all the presents have been unwrapped, and you haven’t quite got what you wanted, or it’s the wrong colour and you know you can’t change it. Perhaps that’s why I always think unopened presents are the best – when you don’t know what’s inside, and it could be something amazing, even though you think it’s probably a pair of socks.
So this rumination is about the rituals we set up – the particular way of decorating the tree, the special recipe for turkey stuffing, handed down for generations. It’s like a church service, if we do the right things and follow the rules, then we’ll have the perfect celebration. Nobody will get embarrassingly drunk, or start an argument, or refuse to join in with Monopoly. Everybody will get exactly the right presents, eat just the right amount of delightful food, and feel totally contented with their lot in life. If only.
A ritual we’ve recently adopted happens last thing on Christmas night or Boxing Day. Him Outdoors disappears off to bed leaving the die-hards to slob out on the sofa, with refillable glasses and assorted snacks. Then we watch It’s a Wonderful Life in sparkling black and white, and each time I marvel at how quickly I can forget the missing colours. I enjoy the Vaseline mistiness of the heroines’ faces, and admire how their hair stays impeccably waved in a snowstorm, and their mascara fails to run despite floods of tears and (chaste) nights in bed.
Spoiler alert, don’t read this section if you haven’t seen the film and might want to –
This is a cult classic, a fairytale which reflects the social mores of post-war 1940s. James Stewart shines as the gauche good guy whose lifelong dream is to escape from small town America to travel the world. He wants to build bridges and skyscrapers, even lasso the moon for the girl he loves, but, irresistible as she is in her spotless apron and oven gloves, she traps him into domesticity. It’s a Scrooge scenario revisited. Enough said.
Telly off, time for bed, and leave the dirty dishes for whoever gets up first in the morning.
Moral – Count your blessings and don’t have unrealistic expectations about Christmas, or Life for that matter. Be grateful for what you have, even if it’s the wrong colour when you’ve unwrapped it.
It’s back in its boxes in the attic, but as Christmases go this has been a good one, and I am truly thankful for that.