I have to confess to not being a great fan of the annual festive season, at least not in adult life.
When I was younger, I anticipated the avalanche of gifts, as any child would. I used to equally enjoy the celebrations at my grandparents’ house, where the whole extended family would congregate. This was a real old-fashioned Christmas; everyone eating together on long trestle tables, the women busy in the kitchen, the men recovering from a lunchtime drinking session in the local pub. In the evening, a seafood tea would be served, to line the stomachs for the return to the pub, later followed by a family party, carpets rolled up and stored away, to avoid damaging them.
The parlour would get a rare use during these few days. This decorated and adorned large room that was almost never entered at other times, as life was lived in the kitchen and scullery of the house most days. Souvenirs from military travels overseas, or shell-covered trinkets from seaside towns nearer home. They all fascinated me as a child, and this was an opportunity to examine them. The upright piano had pride of place in the corner. My aunt could play, and the semi-professional pianist from the pub would also come and help, after closing time. The party would be based around the piano, with everyone singing the standards of the day, drinking and laughing until it was almost light outside.
Us children would have long been in bed by then. Beds covered in piles of heavy overcoats, fur stoles smelling of perfume, the unheated rooms and unfamiliar beds, added to the raucous partying, all made sleep hard to find. Eyes stinging from tobacco smoke, bodies fuelled with too much food and sugary drinks, it was such a unique time, and something to really look forward to.
Then I grew up. My Dad left home, and suddenly there was Mum to worry about. The large family was now a little smaller, and spread further afield, no longer all living within the same small area of London. I soon had girlfriends’ families to consider, followed by in-laws after marriage. The planning became a chore, the distances involved greater, and trying to please everyone in the space of a few days was a puzzle that I couldn’t be bothered to solve. With Mum on her own, the main Christmas Day meal always had to be taken at her house, at her insistence. She didn’t like to travel anywhere, to be in an unfamiliar house, but didn’t care who else had to.
Thus began decades of uncomfortable meals, eaten on laps, television blaring. Surrounded by pet dogs and cats, food overcooked and unappetising. I went every year. She was on her own, so what else could I do? Some wives and girlfriends tagged along, others chose to spend the time with their own families. This created atmosphere and tension, and ended up spoiling the day for everyone. Everyone except Mum, of course. I mean no criticism of her. She only understood family at Christmas, and just her own family at that. She decided that she had done her partying, travelling to relatives, and served her time helping to prepare food, and clean up after a lot of very drunk men. I couldn’t blame her for that.
During all this, I worked shifts for over thirty years, always desperate to get the day off, like everyone else. Sometimes, I had to work. Up all night, then over to Mum’s on three hours sleep, and back into work at 10 pm that night. Hardly conducive to feeling festive. Then Mum got much older. She spent her first Christmas in hospital in the year 2000, and almost every year after that was spent visiting her on a ward, or sitting in the relatives’ room in the emergency department, as she fought for her life on a trolley bed somewhere. Calling ambulances just as dinner was served, getting home at some unearthly hour, once they decided to admit her. Not her fault of course, she was ill. Christmas made her worse, it seems. Perhaps worrying about sending cards, getting the dinner right, or whether or not I could spend the whole day there. Any increase in her stress levels exacerbated her condition.
I began to hate this time of year, and to dread it coming around. By the time November appeared on the calendar, I was posting cards and wrapping presents. Anything to get it over and done with as soon as possible. Since Mum died in 2012, I have lived in Norfolk, and been able to spend the time at our own home. There is less stress, and life is undoubtedly easier. Maybe one day, I might learn to love Christmas again. Who knows?