Saturday 18 December 2021

Dreaming of Christmas alone

It's always like this. That's me by the fire there with my current heartthrob.

Who would have thought it.  I am an extrovert, one of a large family of three brothers, twenty four first cousins, fourteen uncles and aunts and fifty thousand second, third and many times removed other relatives.  I am also known to enjoy a knees up.  I had a mum and dad too, both of whom had friends, and so growing up was never really done in silence, or alone.   It was a free for all most of the time.  Add to all of this my two grandfathers, and three grandmothers - one of whom was my grandfather's second wife, who brought with her her own family, some of whom are still dear friends to this day. 

Who would have thought, knowing all this, that a silent Christmas this year on my own would be my idea of bliss.  

The idea at Christmas is that there is lots of fuss.  We can choose to join in and go up and have a lovely time, or go down and become an alcoholic and fight everyone.  Or, we can opt out while secretly tagging along with our neighbour who loves the fuss, and say, "Oh go on then," pretending we didn't really want to.  Or, we really can opt out, and make a little bolt hole for ourselves under the table with plenty of snacks and watch back to back Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, feeling smug. 

I have done all the glitter, the presents, the huge Christmas lunches and the trees over the years.  I have agreed to have everyone in the world over for Christmas Day, fed them rich boiled fruit cake from my wonderful Irish Great Aunt Nina's recipe and done my best to make everything perfect just as it is supposed to be over the festive time.   

When I was a little girl, when Christmas was so big, so magnificent and so full of magic and excitement, I never wanted it to end.  All that wrapping paper, all the hiding of presents for each other under our beds and all the wonderful foods being prepared and stored for the big day made my brothers and me giddy with excitement.  Our Christmas day started on Christmas Eve with midnight mass, followed by bed in the early hours of the morning with our stockings ready at the end of the bed and so much excitement about getting to morning to see what we had got.

Oh and then there was the food. There was always so much food over Christmas.  Such wonderful, once a year treats!  We had a big cold larder room in our house, ideal for preparing food in advance and leaving it while Mum got on with all the fresh foods.  Mum fed so many people over Christmas, I do not know how she did it, it was a banquet of delights for family, friends and assorted guests. But how magnificent it was to sneak into the larder in the week running up to Christmas day to peep at what was in there.  Trifles and fruit salads made from scratch and upside down cakes waiting only for whipped cream; brandy snaps also waiting to be filled with cream, plates upon plates piled high with newly made mince pies, bowls of fresh brandy butter, dark pink savoury jellies made with beetroot and red cabbage, sprouts, carrots, potatoes all ready to be roasted, and Mum's famous roasted red cabbage and vinegar with raisins. There were crisp buttery shortbreads in their tins, and mixtures of both chestnut and sage and onion stuffings in big bowls with towels over the top, ready to go onto the table.  And of course Great Aunt Nina's boiled fruit cake that took over four hours to make, three of them in the oven.  It was, and still is, utterly fabulous. Outside in one of the sheds, the turkey, the ham and if we had any, the pheasants, were prepared ready for cooking and presentation at the big Christmas lunch.

This is how I FELT my mother's Christmas larder looked like

 I love those memories.  My mother worked hard to make Christmas wonderful and as a young mother myself I tried to recreate the magic and food that my mother had provided for us, for my own children.  I was very poor, and chaotic, but did what I could - there was magic in my Christmases even if they were unconventional, and I always managed to find the money for presents, stocking presents and treats. I ended up buying enormous Christmas trees from some tough red headed travellers for many years, in a field off the main road near where I lived. All red haired, all trained fighters and all proud of it.  Even the women.  

Of course, this was nothing to how we got our Christmas trees while growing up.  We lived in a remote farmhouse in the middle of the West Sussex countryside then, and if you were the farmer or landowner then and reading this now, we are all very sorry.  Once a year in late December, at about midnight, my father and brothers dressed in their darkest outdoor clothes, got the axe, some rope and a torch and set off across the fields to where there were plenty of trees in the woods.  Only once did I go too, when we were all a bit older, and saw just how exciting the whole venture was.  So, in the freezing cold at nearly midnight, I joined my father and three brothers to trudge quietly in single file in pitch black across the fields to the woods, select a tree, and chop it down as quickly and quietly as possible and drag it back across the fields with obvious tree drag marks in the mud across all the fields, right up to our front door.  We didn't even think of that then, and no one ever knocked on our door to drag the tree back again.

We were nearly caught on that one time I joined them all.  Just as we fastened the rope around the fallen tree in the pitch black of the woods to take it back to the house, we saw landrover headlights bumping along the track nearby and had to dive into the undergrowth as the landowner's steward did the rounds of his woods and fields, checking there were no poachers or other problems lurking about.  Little did he know that hiding under the fusty piles of winter leaves and bracken, within a few feet of his car, was his very nice tenant who was a television producer for the BBC, his four teenaged children and an axe.

He also didn't notice one of his trees lying at a suspiciously jaunty angle with a rope round it ready to be dragged off and decorated with tinsel and fairy lights.  Just as well, as Dad was underneath it trying to look like undergrowth.  Later that day, on Christmas day itself, the landowner and his wife would be joining us all at the dinner table and he would never guess that our fabulous twinkling tree was actually one of his. 

The land owner had no idea that the lovely tree at his host's Christmas dinner was actually one of his

When my children were little, it was so easy to make their Christmases special.  They had magic in their little hearts and eyes anyway, and loved the presents, the lights, the tree and the big Christmas lunch.  My children soon learned that the more people came to visit, the more presents they got, and so they encouraged their own friends and anyone who would listen, to drop by on Christmas day.  Sometimes, there were lots of people and presents, sometimes there were just lots of people.  It did not always work out present wise for the kids, and no one minded. But I was a single mum, and it was exhausting to make everything come together and look easy.  I never had much money, often none at all, but somehow we always did Christmas.  Somehow, we pulled through.  

So now, let us come back to this coming Christmas and why I am dreaming of spending it alone.  

I have loved my Christmases past.  My parents worked hard to make them special, and I worked hard when it was my time, to make mine the best they could be for my own children.  It took so much energy and effort, so much planning and preparation, so much scrimping and saving and so much cooking, preparing and cleaning up that I was often utterly exhausted at the end of it, and felt that though I was delighted to have provided Christmas for everyone else, I did not really have one myself. I, and my mother and almost all mothers and fathers before us, did not get time off, did not have a restful and lazy time, and we were at all times responsible for everything.  The buck stopped with us.  We did everything.  Despite it being so exhausting and stressful for those in charge, it was all completely worth it when I was young and energetic, but now I lack the will to put so much effort into what will end up being only one day.  A fabulous day, a holy day, a fun day, but such a significant one that I find I am weary before I even start.  I am too old, and too tired, I don't want to do all that work.  Instead of wanting to cook, and celebrate, and spend time with all my friends and family, I actually want to close all my doors, turn my phone off, and spend a magical day on my own in my studio.  I have a vision of Christmas Day being somehow mine, and special, and my studio warm and inviting and undisturbed.  That is where I would love to spend my Christmas Day.  Alone, not speaking, not seeing anyone, just painting and pottering and listening to talking books.  Of course, there will be a little bit of preparation, and I will have fairy lights and some candles in there, and at the appropriate time, a time of my choosing, I will probably have a whole packet of mince pies. I anticipate at least six.  No one will need anything of me, no one will disturb me, and no one will ask me any questions. It will be the one day in the year where I can actively disengage from all expectations, and, a big deal for parents and all those who produce big Christmases, I will not have to try.  

But, as with all good things, I have compromised.  I will, because the grandchildren have asked, be spending Christmas Day with them.  I will enter this Christmas, then, through the eyes of my tiny grandbabies, and revisit my youth through their excitement.  I will be fed there, made to sit down, and asked to look at lego superheroes by my six year old grandson number one, give my two year old granddaughter all my jewellery because she wants to wear it, asked whether I will get a disability scooter by my four year old grandson number two (and then, he asks, if I do get the scooter, will I die soon after because I will be so old) and dribbled on by my eight month old grandson number three.  I am delighted to be going there.

On Boxing Day, the day after, I will have my day in the studio with six mince pies instead.

How I imagine my studio looks over Christmas.


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