08 Dec What are you doing at Christmas?
It’s the in-between year and it’s not so easy to answer the question that keeps being asked. Every other year two of our three collective daughters and their offspring disappear to their in-laws for the main event. So, our numbers are way down from a boisterous 13 to 3.
What to do? This comes up every time and we always leave it late to decide, keep putting it off. Part of me wishes we could put the whole festival off altogether, already jaded by jingles and tinsel by mid-December. Let’s do something different, we always say. One year we walked along the river. It was just two of us that year; the third daughter was living beyond the Atlantic and below the equator. We went about 8 or 9 miles and had a cheese and tomato sandwich washed down with a thermos of coffee for Christmas lunch. Simple and memorable. A couple of years ago we lunched with similarly refusenik friends at a restaurant that advertised its offering for 25th December as ‘not Christmas lunch’, so we drove into central London through eerily deserted streets, parked where you’d never be able to park on any other day of the year, ate delicious, reasonably-priced French cuisine and completely escaped the crackers, paper hats, silly jokes and late afternoon fatigue.
This year we decided we would volunteer – serving lunches for the homeless that sort of thing – but left it too late to register. All the shifts are full of others doing their bit for the more vulnerable among their fellow human beings. We should have known it was late to apply – that long autumn season of trying not to think about it did for our good intentions.
I have to admit to no longer really enjoying Christmas and being grumpy and possibly not much fun these last few years. It’s for all the reasons that lots of people have for becoming a little bah-humbug about it. The commercial stuff, the over-eating, over-spending, over-hype, the intensity of shops and transport systems, the noise and fuss of the whole shebang. Drives me bonkers and I want to hide away from it for as long as possible.
There’s also the way time seems to slow down and empty out as the days stretch between 24th and 31st. The day itself can feel hollow and interminable without the bustle of an excited child, the sizzle of a turkey roasting in the oven and the complex orchestration of the kitchen. Even a modest nut roast, the dish of choice now we don’t eat meat, would be a challenge to dovetail with the roast potatoes and all the other stuff competing for oven-space. How many times do you turn in circles in the kitchen muttering to yourself: “If I take that out of the oven then, how do I keep it warm while the potatoes go in to roast? No room to put the plates in to warm – too bad! When do I need to put the pudding on to steam? Where are my glasses so I can read the instructions? Ah, here they are under the Brussels sprout trimmings. Oops that was close!”
A year off should be a real treat.
Yet, somehow stepping out of it all is so very difficult. It’s almost impossible to treat it as if it’s any other day just without functioning public transport. It’s like being in limbo and I can never settle down to do anything. I still haven’t worked out why, given all my forcefully valid reasons, I can’t just dismiss it, expunge it from my diary on alternate years, ward it off, stay calm and quiet. Do the few very important presents sometime in November and then shut down. It’s that last bit, the shutting down, that’s hard.
However much I try to suppress it, there’s a tug. Maybe there’s still a bit of a child inside me, a trace of the magic that filled and thrilled me once upon a time when I believed in the myths. Echoes of a time of innocence. Difficult to let it all go. There is something gently restorative, once you’ve dealt with the guilt of all the trees that have been sacrificed for the habit, about taking the time to send and receive cards, even if it’s the only contact you have with people throughout the year. Something about people stopping what they’re doing for a while, withdrawing from the everydayness of everyday life. The escapism is inviting; the messages of peace and goodwill are increasingly welcome diversions into the make-believe that everything is alright with the world.
So, I’ve decided. I’m going to be less grumpy this year. No, still no tree, but I might have some playful lights along the mantelpiece. No Christmas pudding but maybe a sprig of holly on top of tasty tiramisu at the end of a modest dinner in the evening of 25th.
And during the day? We’ll likely do a variation on the walk and the sandwich: three of us instead of two, different route, different filling, tea instead of coffee…