Christmas Past

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?

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29 thoughts on “Christmas Past

  1. Pete, we had an authentic bûche de Noël au praliné for Christmas dessert today. It was made by Jonathan Pluvinet at Le French Café, and it was absolutely delicious. I could have eaten a couple of them, but, of course, I shared with others. We don’t make any fuss over Christmas, and I didn’t buy or receive any gifts this year. But we had a small tree, a wreath, and some other Christmas-themed decorations around the house.
    I understand your complaint about working on Christmas Day. In years past, I’ve worked on that day, too. In fact, for a while, I worked virtually every holiday in the calendar year for the benefit of others, basically making those days a regular work day for me and therefore diminishing the festive spirit significantly.
    Anyway, I hope you had a decent Christmas this year. I guess at this point in life, it’s what you make of it.

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    1. I am pleased that you had an enjoyable family time, David. We have Julie’s daughter and grandson staying, and the rest of her kids coming today, and tomorrow. What was a decent-sized and comfortable house for two of us suddenly feels very crowded indeed.
      Very best wishes, Pete.

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  2. The shift work and the nature of the work definitely don’t do the christmas mood much good. I look forward to New Years Eve much more. A time to remember family & great friends that were considered extended family that are no longer with us, while spending time with those still here. I always try to get my new year eve/day shifts off. (Maybe the new year thing is a Scottish thing? Maybe?) I’d hate a life event to make new years eve/day just another day. What ever you’re doing Pete, I wish you a merry christmas & good health.

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      1. Well, I’m at my friends, and her daughter and I have just spent a very amicable time chatting and being ‘helper elves’, prepping sprouts and carrots for the meal later! 20 plus sitting down….I shan’t be short of company

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  3. Your early reminiscence reminded me of a long Christmas past at my Aunties, complete with piano 🙂
    I enjoyed the Christmases that brought the family together, although living away for so long it didn’t happen that often in the last 25 years or so. This one should be a good one though, after our Polish family do on the Eve (all very quiet) we have somehow ended up with seven guest for Christmas dinner. With one guest bringing his home brewed beer I’m sure it will be a good one and at least we didn’t have to queue for the roast! Good old George.

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  4. Whichever way you want to celebrate the occasion, I hope you will enjoy it with the family. Christmas will always be a great celebration for us here the center of which is the Christmas eve mass, and the noche buena too where we gather together at the dining table, a sort of thanksgiving for the blessings in our lives. Of course, exchanging gifts is part of it.

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  5. Celebrating Christmas in Norfolk means a lot less stress for me and we love to be on our own, no visitors for big meals and not visiting anyone… Shopping today in Cromer and Holt was a lot easier than expected and now we are tucked in with lovely food and drinks and hoping for the weather to turn a lot colder. 🙂
    Warm greetings and all the best to you and Julie and Ollie,
    Dina, Klausbernd, Siri & Selma Xx

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  6. Perhaps Xmas is only enjoyed by the very young, well, up to 13/14 years! It seems like so much stress for everyone, too much. I have got to the point of having no presents to buy, no cards to send and no particular schedules to fulfil, call me what you like but I feel much happier about this season.
    However, I can easily send my love and best wishes to you Pete & Julie and to all your readers xx

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  7. Same here Pete, I’m always glad when it is over. I had some great Christmases as a child and also with my own children, even when the parents had to stay over for days in an already crowded house, as public transport ground to a halt. Between them were some pretty bad times, and then in 2001 my father died on 21 December which sort of wrecked that Christmas. Now my family are spread and none of us has a house big enough to accommodate everyone, so it is a case of trying to gather everyone (excluding the Aussie branch) together for a meal at some point, not always at Christmas. We’ll be having a normal meal (just the two of us) and be happy with our own company on the day. Nice drop of wine and maybe a mince pie, though they won’t be home-made as they once were. Today we drove around the Tesco car park for 20 minutes before giving up. We only want to buy the usual fresh stuff – milk, yoghurts etc. but it looks like I’ll have to walk down tomorrow. Hey, ho, at least I have the market close by 🙂

    Have a nice day with Julie, are you not having the grandchild around for a visit? 1st Christmas – I bet my new one gets spoiled! I must admit I love looking through children’s’ books, so much choice and so many lovely ones (I have always been a big book lover). And maybe you will get to love Christmas again, one day…
    Jude xx

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    1. We already have my step-daughter and grandson here, since Sunday. They are seeing other family for a couple of days, then back here for the full-on Christmas with baby! (My first ever…) The rest of Julie’s family are here on Boxing Day and the 27th, and we haven’t even bought the turkey yet.
      Have a lovely civilised day with the OH, a fine wine, and the shop-bought mince pies. (I prefer them, to be honest.)
      Love and best wishes for 2016, and thanks for always being a great blogging friend.
      Pete. X

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  8. You have encapsulated the difficulty of having a merry Christmas in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I only enjoyed my first five Christmases as my parents made only cursory efforts after that, mostly because of my mother’s bi-polarity. As I said to Olga on one of my posts, my best Christmases have been spent entirely on my own with exactly what I wanted to eat, Christmas fare or no. And, of course, lots of books and favourite films!

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  9. I can relate, Pete! I had a great childhood, but now, living in a senior community in a town loaded with such communities, no blood relatives left – we have the lights up and a small tree, but I’m afraid Thursday will feel just like any other day.

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  10. I’m not a big fan either. I don’t know exactly why. My family was pretty small anyway (smaller now) and when I became a doctor (even when I was training), it wasn’t really much of a holiday season as mostly we’d work (either on the day or around it). When I was training, years back, we were living in hospital accommodation, so you’d be aware of the work and the situation in the wards no matter if you were working or not (unless you were away). I hope you might get to love it again, Pete. For me, the less fuss, the better. 🙂

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